"Low Blow" (citywide) is no sneaky puncher; it's almost brutally direct. After three minutes, you realize you're in for a stinker.

It's a choppy-socky private eye thriller--with writer-producer Leo Fong starring as Joe Wong of San Francisco: a likable middle-aged and low-key chap, with an attractively sloppy office. He's a kindhearted soul: foiling restaurant robberies he spots from his window, and karate-kicking stray purse snatchers.

Wong's case involves a beautiful young heiress, held by a truly strange religious sect--a rural cult composed of several dozen young people who spend their days hoeing asparagus fields in a tight little clump, guarded by armed men on horseback. Every once in a while, they hunker down around their blind, hooded supreme leader (Cameron Mitchell)--the "Mana conda," or perhaps the "Goosey Gander"--who blathers about love and sings Baptist hymns, while the guards kick them. Then, it's back to hoeing the asparagus fields, while the leader's lover, Karma, (Akosua Busia) exhorts them from a loudspeaker.

It's hard to guess the appeal of this religion--unless you love asparagus--but Wong proves more than a match for it. He cleverly stages a "Tough Man" contest: recruiting a wrestler, a boxer, a lady body-builder, a knife-fighter and a Ninja for a daring raid on the farm. (At least it's not another one-against-hundreds climax.)

The direction could kindly be called inept, and neither Mitchell nor Troy Donahue are likely to request prints for their career retrospectives. Fong, however, looks like he's having a good time--and Akosua Busia is so gorgeous you can almost forgive her wild hamming.

'LOW BLOW' A Crown International Pictures release of an Action Communications, Inc., presentation. Producer Leo Fong. Director Frank Harris. Script Fong. Associate producer Hope Holiday. With Leo Fong, Cameron Mitchell, Troy Donahue, Diane Stevenett, Stack Pierce, Akosua Busia.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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