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Aug
2023
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Fahey’s ‘For Kicks’ Is A Journey Beyond Fame With Eugene Thomas

Filmmaker Sean Fahey details the life of action star Eugene Thomas in For Kicks, a feature-length documentary premiering at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on September 17. Besides telling the story of an actor who scaled the heights of fame, Fahey also sheds light on a crucial era of cinematic history. 

“It’s a moment in time,” he says. “The window was there.”

The “moment in time” is Eugene Thomas’s journey to success during the peak of a kung fu movie craze that began in the 1970s, as described by the actor himself. 

Thomas began studying taekwondo in high school and took to it “like a duck in water.” He moved from Chicago to Taiwan when he was 23 years-old. He made a friend in a hostel who introduced him to some movie people who helped him launch a career that spanned the 1980s. He describes the experience as a “dream come true.”

“My mind was just focused on just one thing: headed to Asia to do films,” he recalls. “Opportunity presented itself.”

‘For Kicks’ premieres premiers Sept. 17 at the Chicago Underground Film Festival

A handful of films in which Thomas co-starred during the 80s have been posted on YouTube and today they boast nearly 15 million views. With titles like The Super NinjaNinja USA and Shaolin Dolomite, they are mostly good guys fighting bad guys in extremely choreographed hand-to-hand combat. Occasionally, they lean towards ethnic stereotypes inspired by the Blaxploitation era. 

In For Kicks, Thomas recounts the experience from a couch on a balcony overlooking trees and rooftops. His voice is like scratchy butter, a friendly tone that does not waver when describing the unfair hurdles that he had to face.

“I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have had that opportunity here in the States because at that time in the 70s, I mean, there was nobody doing that,” he says. “We were having a hard time just being Black.”

Supporting the narrative are insights and memories from filmmaker Floyd Webb, actor Ron Van Clief, producer Toby Russell and martial arts film scholar Bryant Murakami, PhD. 

Fahey livens up their stories with a motherlode of vintage clips, many including dubbed dialogue. The combination of martial arts expertise and compromised production techniques is entirely relevant and slightly heartbreaking. 

A dynamic score plays underneath it all. The music comes courtesy of Fahey’s Peoria-based “hometown homies,” psychedelic funk band Brain Child featuring Roy Ponce and Jake Schultz, who channel The Meters ultra-groovy Cissy Strut to score several original licks for the film. Pyrenean analogic synth aficionados NinjA Cyborg add an addictive, upbeat ditty that sounds straight out of a 1980s video game. Longtime composer-collaborator Andrew Edwards also contributes masterfully as well, and one of Thomas’s original scores, Manadu Sunset, made the cut. 

 

A SWELL CONNECTION

Fahey’s journey to completing For Kicks also began with a right-place-at-the-right-time kind of moment. In the early 2000s, he was working as an assistant editor with Swell Pictures, located in the NBC Tower, where Thomas was a security guard. 

“I was getting there early to set up the room for clients,” he recalls. “I made my way into the NBC Building at like 6 a.m. and walked past an elevator bank, and there was Thomas, doing some sort of kung fu move. I did a double take, and he gave me a smile. ‘Ya caught me,’ he said, and we both had a laugh.”

Sean Fahey and Eugene Thomas

In those days, Swell was a juggernaut of the Chicago post-production industry. Housed in the same art deco mid-rise where Jerry SpringerThe Jenny Jones Show and Judge Mathis were recorded, the company was admired for much more than professional expertise. 

“Swell was known for its legendary parties, and everyone in film and advertising would attend,” says Fahey. “I met the entire Chicago creative community there.” 

A recent graduate of the Columbia College film program, Fahey was eager to pursue indie projects outside of the office. Eugene Thomas among his earliest collaborators

“Eugene asked if I would be comfortable cutting together a martial arts reel for him,” Fahey recalls. “I assumed some Hi8 footage of him in a garage or something, so when he came to the NBC Building the next day with a bag filled with VHS tapes with his face on the cover, with titles like Ninja USA, and Mafia vs. Ninja, my jaw dropped. My friend was a low-key international celebrity. And I taught myself how to edit on the Avid using Thomas’ 1980s Ninja movies!”

Fahey and Thomas became friends and worked on a project or two before losing touch for almost 20 years. After the COVID wave subsided, the director reconnected with the actor. 

“I sent him a message and we met for breakfast one morning in the [Chicago] Loop,” says Fahey. “What was going to be a quick meeting ended up lasting hours. We had a lot to catch up on. It was then I decided to ask Thomas if I could make a documentary about his martial arts movie career, and I’m so grateful he trusted me with his story.”

Indeed. Thomas shares much more than life in the kung fu days, including his passion for musical spirituality and the unexpected turn that his film career took after he moved to Los Angeles. The stories are packed with themes and takeaways and cultural implications and life lessons, but they’re delightfully woven into a conversation with an old friend. 

Credit the filmmaker, who turned the 2008 housing crisis into a cozy road trip in the award-winning feature documentary, Bailout, for making it so easy to watch. For Kicks is a unique fusion masterfully crafted by director Sean Fahey.

“Thomas is a Chicagoan who would never boast about his career, so this was unprecedented access” Fahey says. “These days, he works at the old post office and his wife works there. He plays jazz on the side, and the saxophone and the flute complement his meditative endeavors.”

 

WORLD PREMIERE

For Kicks World Premier takes place Sunday, September 17th as the closing film of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Showtime and location is 8:30 p.m. at the newly remodeled Harper Theater in Hyde Park. A night of festivities will follow.

“A world premiere as CUFF’s closing night film is a huge honor,” says Fahey. “I hope my Chicago film family will join the celebration.” 

 

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