Interpol 009 has everything you’d want in a 1960s spy movie–except for a memorable villain, a spectacular crime, and audacious action set pieces. On balance that leaves you with attractive stars, lots of nicely photographed scenes shot in glamorous locations, some nice cars, and a lot of fun gadgets. Fortunately, thanks to its amiable tone and sure-handed technical delivery, that’s enough to make Interpol 009, if far from a dazzling entertainment, at least a pleasant way to wile away an hour or so with a cocktail (or two).
One of the exactly four hundred billion James Bond knock-offs made throughout the world in 1967, Interpol 009 is one of a handful of examples churned out by Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio. It was directed by Ko Nakahira (aka Yeung Shu Hie) who, like Asia-Pol director Akinori Matsuo (aka Mai Chi Ho), was one of a number of Japanese directors who survived lean times in the Japanese film industry by doing work in Hong Kong during that decade. Much like Asia-Pol, the film has a more opened-up, heavily location shot look than the typical, more set-bound Shaw spy effort of its time–thanks largely to the work of Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto, who also lensed the series of sumptuously colorful Shaw musicals–Hong Kong Rhapsody, Hong Kong Nocturne, etc.–directed by his fellow countryman Umetsugu Inoue.
The typical–usually Lo Wei-helmed–Shaw spy films, however, tended to make up for their being a bit rough-edged by providing a modicum of cheesy kiddie matinee thrills–such as hooded villains with armies of outlandishly costumed minions and wild space-age subterranean lairs. Both Interpol 009 and Asia-Pol, on the other hand, seem content to get by on their slick delivery and stylish tone, without going out of their way to deliver much in the way of spectacle. This is especially true of Interpol 009, because, while Asia-Pol did try to add a little grit to its tale of international crime-busting, Interpol 009 seems largely intended to be just a good natured exercise in cool for the sake of cool.
Interpol 009’s action kicks off with the murder of an Interpol agent in the Philippines. Because the agent was a Chinese national, Interpol’s London office decides to send their best and most Chinese agent, Chen Tianhong–aka agent 009–to investigate (after a painfully clumsy scene of the actors speaking in phonetic English–during which Chen Tianhong seems to refer to a neighboring building as “delusional”). Once in Manila, Chen finds that the dead agent had uncovered evidence of an international counterfeiting ring smuggling phony US dollars from Hong Kong to Manila hidden in renovated cars. In terms of scale, this is not the most Bondian of schemes, but Hong Kong espionage films of the period tended to shy away from politics, preferring instead to focus on crimes that were less ideologically driven, such as counterfeiting or smuggling–or, in this case, both.
I should mention at this point that Agent 009 is played by Tang Ching, who, to my mind, is the best of all of Shaw’s Bond proxies. With his weathered good looks he is far less bland than The Golden Buddha’s Paul Chang, and infinitely more manly than Asia-Pol’s adolescent-looking Jimmy Wang Yu. He is also the most adept at projecting the air of rakish sophistication, combined with sardonic self-awareness, that these kind of roles require–something he also handily proved in the wonderful mod caper picture Summons to Death and his costarring roles with Lily Ho in both of the Angel With the Iron Fists films. This is a quality that director/writer Nakihira makes good use of, providing the actor with several moments of prime 1960s era caddishness, such as when a woman Chen is about to bed asks if he’s slept with one of the other female characters and he replies, “No, it’s not her turn yet.”
Interpol 009’s plot tends to depend on happy coincidences to move it along (such as when a room in which Chen is trapped also happens to contain all of the necessary ingredients to make nitro-glycerin) and the first of those coincidences occurs during Chen’s flight from Manila to Hong Kong, where he happens to meet two women traveling separately who both end up being of key importance to the story and his investigation. One is a woman played by Margaret Tu Chuan–who, as far as I could tell, was only referred to by her underlings as “Third Sister” when she was referred to by name at all–who turns out to be the leader of the crime ring’s HK/Manila operation. The other is Pingping, a nightclub singer played by Shen Yi whose boyfriend, we later learn, has gotten on the wrong side of the gang by embezzling ten thousand dollars worth of counterfeit bills.
Chen is posing as a professional gambler, and once he arrives in Hong Kong he manages to get himself arrested and thrown in jail as a means of working his way into the HK demimonde. As a result of this episode, he finds himself fitted with a comic sidekick in the form of Huang Mao (a less annoying than he could be Lee Kwan), a local pickpocket and gambler who gains Chen entrance to an underground casino at which patrons play with US dollars. This casino turns out to be one of the gang’s numerous fronts, and Chen’s presence there alerts the hoods to the fact that he’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. Thus is initiated the round of attempted assassinations that Chen must evade while trying to get to the top of the organization’s power structure and locate their money printing operation.
To tell you the truth, a lot of the plot of Interpol 009 either didn’t make any sense or was just more complicated than I was willing to dedicate my attention to. In fact, it never even seemed to reach a full resolution since, though Chen does succeed in foiling the local operation, he never does find out who’s in charge at the higher level. Still, I think the important thing is that the movie looks great, never loses its sense of cool, and includes such technological wonders as a shoe-launched lasso; a watch with a glass cutter, camera and file that also emits smoke; a bullet-firing ring; and–my favorite–chewing gum that turns to steel when sprayed with perfume. which can then be used to pick locks (though I must say that gum chewing doesn’t look so suave on a secret agent).
While Interpol 009 is definitely light on big action set pieces, it does try to kick things up in the last act, giving us a thrilling and brilliantly lensed shoot-out in a luxurious villa where Chen, cornered by an army of armed goons, swings from a chandelier as he sprays the room with machine gun fire. For the most part, though, while I wouldn’t say that the film’s pacing is slow, it is definitely relaxed. This languorous tempo is perfectly exemplified by the film’s version of the old “ticking clock” scenario, in which Chen and Huang Mao are chained up in a sealed room with a time bomb. Of course, Third Sister sets the bomb’s timer for two hours, which gives the two plenty of time to free themselves, whip up a batch of nitro-glycerin from those aforementioned handy ingredients, and probably make sandwiches before it goes off.
Despite all this, though, Interpol 009 goes down smooth and easy. After all, who says a spy thriller needs to jangle your nerves all the time with sudden bursts of activity and unexpected twists? Maybe once in a while you’d like to get your dose of sixties secret agent cool in the form of a slow drip, rather than a mainline injection. If so, keep this movie on hand, because sooner or later you’ll find yourself in the perfect mood for it.