As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Every old fart knows the 80s were the golden era of the big, stupid action movie. As for exactly which of the many bloated, gloriously moronic 80s action movies was the ultimate 80s action movie — well, I’m sure no one agrees on that. Cases can be made for everything from Commando to Die Hard to Bloodsport. For my money, though, the ultimate 80s action movie might be the awesomely boneheaded The Taking of Beverly Hills. It’s not the biggest 80s action movie, and certainly not the best or best known. And in fact, it wasn’t made in the 1980s at all, but came out in that transitional year of 1991 when we had put away our parachute pants but still hadn’t forsaken our billowy Chess King shirts. Despite the production date, however, no other action film contains such a perfect and complete distillation of the 80s attitude as The Taking of Beverly Hills, a movie about a bunch of spoiled millionaires who are taken advantage of by a slightly meaner millionaire until another millionaire steps up to the plate to blow stuff up. It’s the cinematic embodiment of the Me Generation, even more so than Wall Street (which purports to moralize about geed and selfishness) and with way more exploding Rolls Royces. Hell, The Taking of Beverly Hills is like someone got drunk and was like, “What if Wall Street was Die Hard?!?” Even the music, which is dripping with synths and saxophones, is quintessentially 80s.
Star Ken Wahl, who who once shot an uzi at Klaus Kinski while pulling sweet 360s on the ski slopes and listening to Tangerine Dream in the movie The Soldier, stars here as lunkheaded superstar quarterback Boomer Hayes, though I think we’re actually supposed to think he’s somewhat smarter and more sensitive than the average football player — a character trait communicated by having him trade charity guest appearances for sex. Wahl, looking beefier than he did just a few years earlier, never really made it to the upper echelon, or even the second tier for that matter, of action stars, though it’s not necessarily any fault of his. The second tier was occupied by Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, and those egos took up a lot of space.
Boomer and his wicked mullet (there was a law at the time that every quarterback, real or fictional, had to sport a mullet) are making an appearance at a posh Beverly Hills charity event also attended by smug millionaire Robert Masterson (the always awesome Robert Davi, who I think has played a smug criminal in every single role he’s ever had). Masterson is the usual “money can’t buy you class” sort of asshole these movies love, so all the people who were born into money can tsk-tsk the uncouthness of the guy who actually earned his millions. Boomer also meets harried cop Ed Kelvin (Matt Frewer), who provides us with the movie’s trite lesson about how all the people who work in Beverly Hills can’t afford to live there, and heiress Laura Sage (Harley Jane Kozak), with whom he will engage in the aforementioned sex-for-donations transaction — and you thought that was going to be between Boomer and Matt Frewer!
Boomer and Laura retire to his mansion to cavort in a bubble bath, where they don’t have to see or hear about poor people. Weirdly, it’s Boomer who does most of the sexy writhing in the bath — score one for equality, but only if you think “sexy writhing” includes flailing your feet around and sculpting yourself some wicked wizard beards out of bubbles. Meanwhile, Officer Kelvin runs across a careening tanker truck that soon crashes and spills toxic chemicals all over the place. A state of emergency is called, and Beverly Hills is evacuated of all its residents — except for Boomer, who was too busy making bubble beards to hear all the sirens or the sounds of his bedmate shouting downstairs and being escorted away by the cops. Then comes the kicker — there is no toxic spill. The entire thing was a ruse orchestrated by a gang of bitter ex-cops who were sick of watching over a bunch of self-centered Beverly Hills millionaires and so have now decided to rob the neighborhood blind. Of course, they didn’t count on that most classic of action movie evil-scheme monkeywrenches — the righteous football player.
Before too long, Boomer has stumbled onto the plot, and in about the same amount of time, Ed Kelvin discovers that his fellow conspirators aren’t as hesitant to shoot innocents in the head as he is. This leads to the confused beat cop teaming up with the quarterback to put an end to the madness. They’re an interesting duo, though Frewer plays his semi-dirty cop a little too whiny for my taste. Neither of them are particularly good at being action heroes. Kelvin is too distraught over a combination of having had a part in the plan, trying to extricate himself from the madness, and worrying about the fact that even if he survives, he’s doing time. Boomer is a football god, but unlike most movies where being a football player equips you with the skills and technical knowledge of a Navy SEAL, it’s obvious he’s in way over his head. As the two alternately try to escape from Beverly Hills or put an end to the robbery scheme, a lot of windows get broken, and a lot of stuff blows up. There will be more tortured football analogies than you could possibly imagine, and at one point Ken Wahl fights a SWAT tank!
Then he gets a bag of ninja throwing stars.
Much of The Taking of Beverly Hills is dumb as a brick, but at the same time, some of it is kind of clever. The robbery scheme is pretty well thought out if entirely implausible, but it’s only implausible in the real world. In the world of action cinema, it’s a perfectly workable scheme. Because Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles what The Vatican is to Rome, it’s the perfect place for the heist. The police department, electrical grid, and phone system are all self-contained. Many of the action movies of the 80s and early 90s spillover could be summarized as “Die Hard in a…” and it’s pretty obvious that The Taking of Beverly Hills is really just “Die Hard in a city,” before Die Hard With a Vengeance was “Die Hard in a city.” And The Taking of Beverly Hills is a better “Die Hard in a city” than Die Hard with a Vengeance was. Even if it’s just a Die Hard clone — complete with a ridiculously convoluted scheme meant to cover a different, even more convoluted scheme — the movie moves along at a quick pace and manages to be, if not actually clever, then at the very least breezily enjoyable.
Director Sydney J. Furie was an accomplished director with a couple classics (including the spectacular Michael Caine spy thriller The IPCRESS File) and a couple not quite classics (the strange Vietnam war soccer movie The Boys in Company C) under his belt, as well as more than a few goofy 80s action films (including Iron Eagle) and one certifiable abomination (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), though blame for that dung pile is squarely on the shoulders of Christopher Reeves and the Cannon Film Group far more than it is on Furie. For The Taking of Beverly Hills, Furie brought with him his long-time screenwriting collaborator Rick Natkin, who brought with him his sometimes collaborator, David Fuller. You wouldn’t think a movie as mindlessly silly and entertaining as this would need three writers, and you’d be right. It actually had four writers. Somehow, TV writer David J. Burke was thrown into the mix as well.
Usually, the more writers you have on a film, the worse it gets, but this team somehow managed to click, and they keep the plot relatively lean and fast-moving. You have to forgive certain aspects of the film, mind you, chief among them being that the story never really gives us any reason to like Boomer all that much. He’s a rich football player who trades charity appearances for sex, but I guess in the roll call of football player crimes, the fact that the sex he solicits is at least consensual elevates him above most. Still, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the snotty millionaires getting robbed of things that are insured anyway — yeah, it turns out that the whole scheme has actually been orchestrated by Robert Davi (no spoiler — it’s fucking Robert Davi! Did you think he was going to be a good guy?) so he can shame and bankrupt Laura’s father, who happens to be CEO of the insurance company most of Beverly Hills uses. The script has to have the cop gang senselessly killing people, otherwise, as far as most Americans would be concerned, the crooks would be the good guys.
Ultimately, Boomer succeeds as an action hero because Ken Wahl — and not necessarily because he’s good. Wahl seems perpetually confused throughout the movie. Whether this is intentional or simply the result of Wahl being a bad actor in this instance is unknown and unimportant, because perpetually confused is the exact state of mind a guy like him should be in when caught up in the middle of such an ludicrous criminal scheme. Plus, his Boomer copies the one thing from Die Hard that many clones forget — he’s wounded. When the movie begins, Boomer has been hobbled by a knee injury, and for most of the movie, he’s plagued by the injury that keeps him from being any sort of unstoppable killing machine. He also doesn’t know much about guns (I would say he could learn a thing or two from Plaxico Burress, but all Plaxico did was manage to shoot himself in the leg), and much of his success in fighting the gang of cops comes from luck, knowing the lay of the land, and help from his reluctant sidekick Officer Kelvin. Speaking of which, I have to say that although I like Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Eureka) a lot, he’s pretty annoying in this. The script’s one misstep is mistaking “whiny and annoying” for comic relief. It is, of course, not the first script to do that, nor would it be the last.
There’s very little to say about the rest of the cast. Former Fear frontman turned competent character actor Lee Ving (Streets of Fire) is basically wasted. I feel like Davi, one of those great “assholes” of the era (though no one is as good at it as William Atherton), is somewhat under-exploited. We know he can be a lot smarmier than he’s allowed to be here. The dame in the story has even less to do than usual, and most of the cops are just there to stand at roadblocks or jump backwards into swimming pools after Ken Wahl throws something at them. The only supporting character of note is Branscombe Richmond — whose real name sounds like he should be one of the millionaire characters in this movie. Richmond is “best known” for his recurring roll as Bobby Sixkiller, Lorenzo Lamas’ buddy in Renegade, but he pops up in all sorts of the more outrageous action films, including Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and the unspeakably awesome Never Too Young to Die. In this one, he’s hooting and hollering and gunning people down and tearing around (and through) Beverly Hills in a SWAT assault vehicle.
Buried somewhere beneath all the exploding and things being thrown (although there are guns everywhere, Boomer is a QB, so naturally he prefers throwing things at people) there might be the hint that The Taking of Beverly Hills is playing itself as a straight-faced satire of the genre. By 1991, 80s action films were obviously self-aware (not that they hadn’t always been a largely tongue-in-cheek genre), so playing one for laughs without drawing attention to the fact really wouldn’t have resulted in a movie substantially different from one that wasn’t satire. Whatever the case, critics and audiences were unkind to The Taking of Beverly Hills. It was pretty roundly savaged by reviewers and never made a splash with viewers. There had apparently been some hope that it would be a hit — someone even tried to make a video game of it back in the day! Too bad it didn’t pan out. I honestly enjoyed the hell out of The Taking of Beverly Hills. It is phenomenally dumb and ridiculous, but always in a highly enjoyable way. There’s massive amounts of (relatively bloodless) carnage, the wanton destruction of lots of luxury items, an uneven but enjoyable cast, a quick pace, and a few laughs. Oh, and ninja stars! I might even consider it a forgotten classic of the genre.
Release Year: 1991 | Country: United States | Starring: Ken Wahl, Matt Frewer, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Davi, Lee Ving, Branscombe Richmond, Lyman Ward, Michael Bowen, William Prince, Michael Kehoe, Mark Haining, Jason Blicker, Tony Ganios, Ken Swofford | Screenplay: Rick Natkin, David Fuller, David Burke | Director: Sidney J. Furie | Cinematography: Frank E. Johnson | Music: Jan Hammer | Producer: Graham Henderson
Eddie Romero is an important figure in the history of U.S. – Philippines relations, or at least he is to the extent that U.S. – Philippines relations depend upon the import and export of quality drive-in fare. As a producer and director, Romero pioneered the practice within the Filipino film industry of tailoring product for the American market, usually with the participation of American producers. Who knows what butterfly-effect-like calamities might otherwise have befallen our great country, denied exposure to the films in Romero’s Blood Island trilogy, or his classic WIP picture Black Mama, White Mama? The mind positively reels.
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000’s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang
I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.
Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?
Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.
Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.
At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.
Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.
Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.
As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.
Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.
Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.
The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.
So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.
Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958’s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.
One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).
Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.
I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.
Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
Back when we had to really scrounge for every scrap of information about Hong Kong action films, one of the places one had to turn was Ric Meyers’ monthly article in Inside Kungfu magazine. This was back before Meyer lost his mind, or whatever the heck happened to him and the quality of his work. Anyway, a subscription to Inside Kungfu meant you were going to learn a lot of other stuff too, like who Grandmaster Philip Holder was. It was somewhere in the pages of that magazine that I first stumbled across Kathy Long, a beautiful woman, with biceps to die for and a long string of martial arts accomplishments, tournament championships, and martial arts magazine cover appearances to her name. She wasn’t as active in movies as she was in the ring, but she quickly entered my pantheon of worship worthy American fighting femmes, right alongside Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo, Karen Shepard, and of course, Cynthia Rothrock.
Shep and Cynthia had the benefit of having worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and even got to face off against each other in the action classic Righting Wrongs, before they came to America and appeared in an assortment of direct to video martial arts movies that, while not always terrible, paled in comparison to what the women had shown off in Hong Kong. Krasnoo and Long would have been right at home in Hong Kong but sadly never got the opportunity. Instead, The Mouse was saddled with supporting roles in films like Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (God, I love her in that movie), though she did apparently have a blink and you’ll miss it appearance in the Ringo Lam/Chow Yun-fat gangland actioner Full Contact. I don’t remember seeing her in it, but I don’t mind taking another look). Kathy Long — the Princess of Pain — popped up in movies like Albert Pyun’s Knights and this, director Fritz Kiersch’s retelling of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, only with bikers and more skintight black leather. She also did some high profile stunt doubling — you should see her in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman outfit.
Many of the leading female fighters in Hong Kong’s “girls with guns” heyday were dancers or gymnasts by training, while the Americans who made the long flight over almost always come from a legitimate martial arts background — not that that matters, really, for film since we’ve seen time and time again that a great fighter in a poor director’s hands will crash and burn, while a non-fighter in the hands of a good action director can be made to look like, well, Michelle Yeoh or Moon Lee. They could bring the grace, and the action directors knew how to showcase the power of the American fighters without making them look like slow-footed lugs. It would have been great to see Long go toe-to-toe with the greats of that era, as she had the look and the background to make a formidable…well, she would have been a villain, undoubtedly. Only Cynthia Rothrock was allowed to be a hero.
But man, Long vs. Yukari Oshima or Michiko Nishiwaki, or Long vs. Rothrock for that matter, in the hands of a director like Sammo Hung or Yuen Kwai… anyway, it’s a case of the should-have-beens that never were, and I guess it’s too late now. Not because Long couldn’t still cut it — she could only stay retired from beating the shit out of people for so long, and in 2009 started fighting in MMA tournaments — but because the opponents and girls with guns movies just aren’t there anymore. That said, a fella who harbors a tendency to crush on bad-ass women can still hope to one day see Kathy Long throw down against Jiang Luxia.
Well, my boyish crush on Kathy Long notwithstanding — which might be charming instead of creepy, if I was still a boy — since she never made films in Hong Kong, all we have are her few American films. The Stranger paints a skintight black outfit onto Kathy Long as The Stranger and sends her to a tiny town in the middle of the American southwest. Like every tiny town in the middle of the American southwest that ever appeared in a B-movie, this one is lorded over by a group of bikers who ride in, Mongol Horde like, every now and again to demand tribute and drink a lot of beer. The Stranger apparently has some sort of problem with the bikers, which she expresses early in the film by breaking out some poorly choreographed martial arts fury and breaking their necks.
The town, including drunken but obviously redeemable sheriff Cole (Eric Pierpoint), doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to the killings, and they are content to just let The Stranger sort of coast along, snapping necks if people piss her off. They don’t even pull a First Blood and ask her to leave. Some of the townspeople admire the fact that she cracked the necks of a couple of the local murderous scumbags, while others think that having a hot karate woman in black leather prowling around, killing bikers, is going to bring down the wrath of gang leader Angel (seasoned B movie and TV actor Andrew Divoff, looking like a creepy combination of Josh Brolin and Kevin Bacon). The Stranger puts that to the test, offing the occasional biker to lukewarm civic reaction. Thrown into the mix are a jealous harpy (Ginger Lynn), your standard issue feral child, and a plot that soon reveals that, though no one knows The Stranger, she has a mysterious past that involves the town and Angel’s bikers. Oh, and also, she looks a lot like Cole’s late wife, murdered by Angel’s gang some years before.
Fritz Kiersch once had the unenviable task of trying to convince audiences that James Spader could be a bad-ass (in Tuff Turf). Here, there’s no issue with trying to convince audiences that Kathy Long is a bad ass. The woman is all toned musclecrowned by a big ol’ head of frizzy blonde hair. Here, Kiersch’s task is convincing audiences that his leading lady bad ass is also an actress. In this task, he is, well, he was about as successful as he was at convincing me that James Spader was a bad-ass. Kathy cuts an impressive figure, but she’s not that great an actress (which is why she would have worked so well in Hong Kong). She’s doing her best Clint Eastwood, which means she’s at least limited for the most part to squinty-eyed stares and icy looks. But Clint was able to do that and still have it be good acting, thanks in no small part to an abundance of charisma that Long simply cannot match. She’s awkward and stilted, but to be fair, she’s no more awkward and stilted than the usual fighters-turned-thespians that populate American martial arts movies from the 1990s. She can deliver most of her lines pretty well, but when she has to summon up more anger or emotion, she doesn’t really pull it off.
She could salvage things with a good action performance, but Kiersch has no idea how to shoot a fight scene. Nor does Long have any choice opponents. I don’t understand why so many American martial arts movies did this. The same thing happened to Cynthia Rothrock in her first starring role in an American film, China O’Brien. They take an awesome fighter (or in the case of that movie, two, since Keith Cooke was pretty awesome too), plop her in small town America, then have her face off against a bunch of lumbering rednecks with no fighting skills at all. I guess I understand the hick town setting. It’s cheap to film in the desert. And I guess it wouldn’t be “realistic” to have a small southern town populated by a bunch of accomplished martial artists. Actually, no. You know what? Every town, no matter how shitty and small, always seems to have a strip mall with a karate school in it. Can’t there be an evil sensei in league with the local rednecks, so at least the Kathy Longs and Cynthia Rothrocks of the world have something to do other than kick fat rednecks in the face?
Not that I have much faith that, even if the town was being menaced by a Richard Norton (with who she would eventually pair up, in Under the Gun) or whoever, we would have gotten good fight scenes. Kathy Long has the right stuff, no doubt, but there’s a reason “action director” is something you work really hard to be good at. Long gets to throw a few good punches and delivers a handful of impressive roundhouse kicks, but for the most part, the people behind the camera don’t really seem to know what to do when it’s time for an action scene. The end result are a handful of showdowns that are as awkward and stilted as Long’s acting. Kathy Long could look a lot better in action than she does here.
For me, it’s impossible not to compare Long and Rothrock, and not just because they both did time beating up bikers and hicks. To be fair, I’ve seen a ton of Cynthia’s movies, but only Knights and The Stranger for Kathy. Rothrock and Long would appear together only once, in Honor and Glory, but the pairing was little more than a wasted opportunity (in fact, Long spends her brief fight scene clumsily locking up with Richard Norton). While there are similarities between the two women — they both ruled tournament fighting, they’re both blonde, they both beat up rednecks — Kathy is by far the more menacing looking fo the two. She’s more muscular, and she fights meaner fights (as much as I love Rothrock, I can’t see her throwing down in MMA fights. Cynthia, by contrast, is more adept at coy smiles and a playful attitude. She’s no less deadly, we all know, but she hides it a lot better than Long, who usually looks like she’s one second away from pounding your face in.
So, I guess much of this review sounds like a pile of negative. Thing is, I didn’t really dislike the movie. It’s no gem, but it’s serviceable direct-to-video action. That’s in part because Kathy Long just looks so damn awesome in it. But it’s also the sort of cheap, half-assed direct-to-video action film that littered the 1990s and provided so many hours of mild entertainment. B-movie comfort food, if you will. You might groan over this film being a remake of High Plains Drifter, but the screenplay by Gregory Poirier, while certainly not sparkling, gets the job done. The Stranger is the sort of movie that I can throw on and watch without really having to pay too much attention to and without being terribly disappointed in the end.
Sure, I really wish Kathy Long’s film career had amounted to more, and I wish that the few films she did star in had paired her with better opponents (why couldn’t she have gone to the small redneck town where Cynthia Rothrock and Keith Cooke lived?) and directors who were better at choreographing and shooting martial arts action (or any sort of action, for that matter). But this is what she got, a western-turned-biker movie dripping with lots of fake Ennio Morricone sound music and lots of shots of her in skintight black leather walking down dusty streets.
And that was enough for me. Kiersch may not handle the action well, but the rest of the film is professionally directed, decently paced, and competently acted. Long may not have Clint’s charisma, but she does have charisma, thanks in large part to her physical presence. I know you get tired of me complaining about movies that cast whisper-thin waifs as unstoppable killing machines, but seriously. Long is the perfect blend of sexy and strong and proves that you don’t have to chose one or the other. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t a hardened veteran of such films, but if you are such a person, then you’ll probably be able to roll with this movie as easily as I did and come out saying, “Eh, it was OK.”
Release Year: 1995 | Country: United States | Starring: Kathy Long, Andrew Divoff, Eric Pierpoint, Robin Lynn Heath, Ash Adams, Ginger Lynn Allen, David Anthony Marshall, Nils Allen Stewart, Danny Trejo, Faith Minton, Jeff Cadiente, Randy Vasquez, Billy Maddox, Robert Winley, Chris Pedersen | Screenplay: Gregory Poirier | Director: Fritz Kiersch | Cinematography: Christopher Walling | Music: Kevin Kiner | Producer: Donald P. Borchers
I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.
Unfortunately, the realities of professional life often clash with my NYAFF aspirations, and this year I was unable to see The Blade due to work schedule, despite that being the one I really wanted to see since it’s so persistently difficult to find. I don’t know what conspiracy keeps that thing so doggedly in the MIA on DVD pile. I also didn’t get to see Hark’s new film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, because going to buy tickets eleven days in advance of the premiere of the film (with Tsui Hark in attendance and doing a Q&A session) is not soon enough.
Ah well. I consoled myself with Zu, which is pretty satisfying consolation indeed. Like many people who got into Hong Kong film in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Zu was one of the first films I saw — first in random clips, and then finally in its entirety on VHS. It was a staggering, dizzying experience, the kind that leaves you slack jawed and only able to communicate via insane howls and arm flailing for days after. I had never seen anything like it, and thirty years after it was made — around two decades after I first saw it — the movie has lost none of its power to astound. The sheer madness, breakneck pace, and audacity of the film is still almost more than I can process. I sat through the packed NYAFF screening with a permanent, giddy grin on my face. Every time I watch the movie, it’s like I’m discovering it for the first time, and I’m a giggling schoolboy during the whole experience.
Zu has a doubly special place in my heart, though. I moved to New York in 1998, around the same time the storied Chinatown movie theater Music Palace was beginning its painful decline. My first trip to the theater was in 1994, when a friend and I made the trip up to New York City from Gainesville, Florida. I had a girl in Massachusetts at the time, and New York City was a good place to meet — not in the middle, but in the middle between Gainesville and Northampton is, I think, South of the Border, and you can only take a girl to Pedro’s Motel so many times. We had no idea we were showing up in New York the same week as Drunken Master II was premiering at the Music Palace, but once we happened by and saw the poster, we knew what the hell we were going to be doing that night. The movie was an absolute madhouse, as shows at the Music Palace usually were.
For those who were never able to see a movie there, it was a classic single-screen theater, complete with a balcony and a dingy concession stand selling dried cuttlefish. The crowd for Drunken Master II was massive. It was a new Jackie Chan film, after all, when such a thing still got people excited, and it was Lunar New Year to boot. The crowd was an eclectic mix of rowdy young kids and phlegmy oldsters — having a phlegmy, coughing old man sitting behind you being a requirement of seeing movies at the Music Palace. Predominantly Chinese in make-up, this was no staid and quiet crowd. People cheered, hollered, hooted, and a couple teens were so excited by the movie that they were running wild in the aisles, throwing down with mock kungfu moves. the Music Palace was never very big on crowd control.
By the time I was a New York resident, the Hong Kong film industry had pretty much collapsed, and new movies garnered very little excitement. As a result, the Music Palace started struggling. The other theater, a block down Bowery, had already succumb to the downturn, transforming itself to a strictly Cat III softcore porn theater and then, finally, into its current incarnation: A Buddhist temple. In order to spackel the cracks that were beginning to show, The Music Palace augmented new film releases with double features of older movies, mostly from the 80s and 90s. Although it was sad to see the theater struggling, I was overjoyed for the chance to spend Saturday afternoons at a $6 double feature of films like Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, and Swordsman — all these amazing films I’d watched on shitty Tai Seng VHS tapes but could now witness is glorious, massive 35mm projection.
The front row of the balcony became my home for four hours just about every Saturday. The Music Palace really didn’t give a crap about much, so if you wanted to bring in a whole meal and sit there all day, you could — and many people did, mostly families and homeless old dudes who either loved the old movies or wanted a place to sleep and cough a lot. every now and then, a group of Triad dudes young or old would show up to watch a double feature, because I guess there was no one to shake down during those hours. In time, I got myself a New York girlfriend and enlisted her as a partner (she was already well-versed in Chinatown culture and all the expectorating it entails). One of the first movies we saw together (the actual first was The Big Hit in Manhattan’s late lamented $4 budget theater, and we didn’t even get to sit together), and the last movies I ever saw at the Music Palace, was a double feature of two of my all-time favorite movies: Zu and Dragons Forever.
The Music Palace itself went derelict shortly after that double feature and sat, empty and crumbling, for years. It took monumental effort on my part to not break in and see what leftovers might still be in the lace. OK, confession. I actually did try to break in. I’m just not very good at it. Eventually, the theater building was demolished, and fans of Hong Kong cinema gathered to lament the loss of one of our last, great landmarks in the United States. For a while, that block also hosted the best DVD stores in Chinatown, but even that is gone now, and all that remains are a few stores that peddle almost nothing but bootlegs, though you can go around the corner to a street stall and get awesome little yellow cakes filled with custard.
Watching Zu at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this year as part of the NYAFF was a different, less greasy experience — though I saw it with the same girl, and for The Music Palace’s sake, we snuck in some roast pork buns (we’d also just that day come off a three day cleansing program and were starving). But nicer setting not withstanding, watching that giant projection of a truly giant film brought an incredible flood of memories and emotion. Movies like Zu, places like the Music Palace, events like the New York Asian Film Festival — these are why Teleport City exists. It was a night long ago spent watching bad VHS bootlegs of Once Upon a Time in China, Project A, Chinese Ghost Story, and Zu that made me start writing about film. My first weeks and months in New York, I didn’t really know many people, but the weird old men, homeless dudes, gangsters, and fellow awkward film nerds who turned up for The Music Palace’s double features were a strange but comforting sort of family.
It was heartening to be in a crowd that cheered wildly for the Golden Harvest logo, for the first appearance of Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, for the first appearance of Brigitte Lin. Sadly, Moon Lee, Meng Hoi and Adam Cheng got less reaction, but what can you do? And Brigitte Lin… my God, Brigitte Lin. She’s so beautiful, so graceful, so perfectly posed and filmed, so elegant in this film that it’s physically painful to behold. I would say my love for Brigitte Lin is rekindled every time I watch this movie, but seriously — who the hell ever loses their love for Brigitte Lin? The NYAFF screening of Zu also had the added bonus of featuring Tsui Hark — these days sans his once trademark mop of curly hair — in a post-screening Q&A session. he was a bit uncomfortable with the movie — what director isn’t squeamish around their old work? — but seem to appreciate how much people appreciated the film.
Although there’s nothing at this year’s festival that will match seeing Zu on the big screen again, it’s been a pretty great year. We kicked off with Karate Robo-Zaborgar, which was quite a bit of fun, then followed up with the more somber kungfu epic Shaolin, which had its faults but was still entertaining. There was also The Man from Nowhere, which friends got to see while I was at work. I have that queued up on Netflix for this weekend, though. Then came the double feature of Zu and Reign of Assassins — with director Su Chao-Pin present (he actually sat in and watched Zu and remarked how awesome he still thought the movie was). Not quite as powerful as Zu and Dragons Forever at the Music Palace, but still a fantastic few hours at the movies.
You can’t really complain about a film festival that has so much awesome stuff showing that you miss a lot — next year, I’ll know to just schedule my vacation around NYAFF. the films I’m missing that I wanted to see — Man from Nowhere, Troubleshooter, The Blade, and Yellow Sea, I’m queuing up on DVD, so I’ll be there at least in spirit, if not physically or at the same time. As for the New York Asian Film Festival, as I did last year, I heartily recommend it. If you’re not in New York, it’s worth the trip. My only complaint — every year, they come out with awesome NYAFF artwork t-shirts and run out of of small and medium within the first couple days. Come on, NYAFF! Not all of us are Sammo Hung! You gotta take care of the Yuen Biaos out there!
Me and Benny Chan go back a ways, and our relationship has been stormy. Some of his directorial efforts, like Who Am I and Big Bullet, I really like. Others, like New Police Story and Gen Y Cops, I really dislike. So I guess I come out even enough that when Chan makes a new movie, I figure I might as well see it. Shaolin, Chan’s first stab at a big budget period epic, is in a way the ultimate Benny Chan film for me in that I really liked about half of it and really didn’t like about half of it. It’s a movie that seems specifically designed to highlight both his strengths and weaknesses as a director.
Most of Shaolin comes straight out of the generic kungfu film screenplay generator, so much so that I felt like anyone who ever wrote a kungfu film should have gotten credit for the script. As it is, three screenwriters get credit for Shaolin — one of whom (Chi Kwong Cheung) hasn’t done much of note, one of whom (Cheung Tan) wrote a bunch of stuff in the 1990s that was really good, and one of whom (Alan Yuen) wrote a bunch of other Benny Chan films I didn’t like. But it hardly matters who was responsible for what, since so much of the movie is a repeat of things we’ve seen before, only delivered with a lack of subtlety that is nigh staggering. When a film is unsubtle even by the generally subtlety-free standards of the kung film — well, I guess that’s some sort of an accomplishment.
Case in point: we open with the familiar scene of monks cleaning up a corpse-strewn battlefield. Within a minute of the film starting, we get a shot of a lone yellow flower (I think it’s yellow — Benny Chan has opted to go with the artificially washed out, colorless look — like pretty much every other director in the last decade) blooming amidst the grime and death. As if that wasn’t groan-inducing enough, the point is further sledgehammered home by having the flower cupped in the hand of a dead child. Seriously, Chan? You’re going with the single flower on the battlefield? In the hand of a slain child? That’s your opening shot? Amazingly, the film actually managed to get even more ham-handed than that as it progresses through its story of warlord Hou Jie (Andy Lau, who apparently devoured, Highlander style, the power of all other superstars from the 1980s and 1990s to turn himself into the most powerful elder statesman ever), a basically evil guy waging war with his neighbors during the lawless period after the Chinese Revolution. This might be one of the first times one of these warlords hasn’t been portrayed by a bald guy with a handlebar mustache (even though Warlords proved Andy Lau can wear fake facial hair with pride). Hou Jie is the merciless sort, even willing to gun down an already dying man — in the back, no less — on the steps of Shaolin Temple, much to the consternation of Shaolin’s abbot (a welcome Yue Hoi, who starred in the much better Shaolin trilogy alongside Jet Li in the early 1980s) and prize pupils (Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, and Xing Yu).
Tagging along with the dastardly general is pouty young upstart Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), who despite being a warlord’s second in command during the early 1900s, still sports anachronistic 1990s moody anime guy hair, proving that no matter what Nick Tse does in his career, his hair is still most important. While Hou Jie schools Cao Man on the finer points of being a ruthless dictator, the Shaolin monks start careers as noble bandits, stealing stockpiled rice and flour and delivering it to the city of refugees that has sprouted up outside the temple. The monks and the soldiers don’t have much interaction with one another after the film’s initial conflict, until the night Hou Jie and Cao Man conspire to murder an ally warlord. It turns out, however, that the ambitious Cao Man has really been paying attention to Hou Jie’s evil lessons, and the young soldier stages a coup of his own, with the assistance of a band of brigands (which includes Xiong Xin-xin, as is required by Chinese law I assume).
In the ensuing fight, Hou Jie’s wife is gravely wounded and his little daughter, after being tossed around like a rag doll for a spell then hit by a galloping horse then tossed off a cliff) is killed. At this point, the movie kicks off what is basically an endless parade of people weeping, though to be fair to Benny Chan, at least he mixes it up with a blend of weeping hysterically and weeping solemnly or simply letting a solitary tear roll down an actor’s cheek. Andy Lau and his wounded wife (Fan Bing-Bing, from Shinjuku Incident and Bodyguards and Assassins) turn in a ten minute freak-out during their daughter’s death that looks like they were both trying to outdo Jacky Cheung’s famous scenery chewing freak-outs from Bullet in the Head.
Hou Jie, wracked with grief and rage, wanders out into the countryside and promptly falls in a pit owned by Shaolin’s eccentric cook (Jackie Chan), who of course is going to be the one to dole out in whimsical fashion a series of philosophical platitudes and questions that will cause Hou Jie to realize the errors of his greedy and evil ways, renounce violence, and become a monk. The other monks are suspicious of the one-time warlord at first, but he soon proves himself a dedicated and benevolent changed man. Not so for his underling, though. Cao Man, freed from the shadow of his mentor, embarks on a reign of terror that includes flopping his bangs into his face, slouching, and growing a goatee. He also teams up with a nasty, conniving British general who eventually gives the movie its single greatest, most stilted line reading, and the best example of hilariously terrible acting by a white guy in a Chinese film since the evil Dutch East India guy in Once Upon a Time in China barked, “Who is this Wong Fei-hong? THE DEVIL???” Needless to say, Cao Man will eventually learn that Hou Jie is still alive and thus will declare war on Shaolin Temple. A truly monumental amount of people crying and being murdered in slow motion will result.
To say that Shaolin‘s many stabs at symbolism are sledgehammer subtle would be to underestimate the precision work one can do with a sledgehammer. This movie is an endless barrage of symbolic cliches, from the aforementioned solitary flower on a battlefield to the scene where Andy Lau’s repentant monk slides, in slow motion, down the front of a giant buddha to land resting in its hands. But even that isn’t enough, so Benny Chan then has it rain, so that we can get scenes of rain washing away blood while — I kid you not — a solitary tear streaks down the Buddha’s face. I was shocked that Chan didn’t follow this up with a shot of the entire nation of China crying dramatically in slow motion. As with the lame attempts at emotion and pathos in New Police Story, Benny Chan overplays everything to the point where attempts at tragedy simply become comical, and the ham-fisted delivery of his film’s symbols and messages would seem clumsy in a first year screenwriting student’s first assignment of the year. There is no feeling of sincerity or earnestness. The stabs at emotion and symbolism are so generic and overdone that they feel little more than crass, cheap melodrama. Benny Chan doesn’t try to jerk tears from the audience; he tries to rip them from you using a giant dump truck and a drag car.
Attempting to match the screenplay’s goofily overblown melodrama is the acting. Andy Lau turns in a credible performance for most of the film, but he has a few scenes that push into the realm of ridiculousness. His character’s journey from ruthless overlord to modest monk happens without any sort of journey. He’s a bad guy; his daughter gets killed; he sits in a pit for a day while Jackie Chan talks to him, and then he emerges as the single most pious and devoted monk ever. There’s no sense of development, no hint at internal conflict the way we got in movies like Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter or 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where a similarly violent character seeks refuge as a monk but must constantly struggle to defeat their inner demons. Although those films have less of the air of “prestige picture” about them, they are much better at exploring the struggle in the central character. In contrast, Andy Lau’s character seems to obtain benevolent enlightenment almost instantly.
Luckily, anything Lau does, no matter how overcooked, seems reigned in when compared to the embarrassing performance by Nicholas Tse. In the late 1990s, when the boy band idols were given the reigns of the Hong Kong film leading man status, I thought that maybe Nicholas Tse would emerge from beneath the hair salon addiction and make something of himself. And while he has flirted with doing that from time to time, for the most part he remains still a pretty boy pop idol who plays every role like a pretty boy pop idol. His attempts here to act or laugh menacingly made me cringe and chuckle. He’s just terrible, often humorously so, which makes it even harder to buy into Benny Chan’s desperate and over-ripe attempts to infuse this movie with tragedy and meaning.
The monks fare better, with most of them turning in decent if forgettable performances. Jackie Chan’s turn as the quirky cook is basically him doing Jackie Chan, only a little less so. There is something novel about seeing him play the character his character from older movies so often trained with, but the joke about how Chan is the one monk who doesn’t know any kungfu is as predictable as everything else in this movie. Jackie Chan cameos can often stop a movie dead in its track (see Project S), as it often feels like he wandered in from an entirely different movie, but I think he clicks pretty well in Shaolin. It’s a strange day indeed when Jackie Chan is the actor giving the most restrained performance.
Action direction is handled by the team of Yuen Kwai and Yuen Tak, and it’s the usual modern mix of real stuntwork with tons of wirework. Some of the wirework is well done, some of it not so much, but for the most part, I enjoyed the action scenes. As is par for the course these days, Benny Chan’s camera spends too much time on fast edits and gets too close to the action, but I think maybe my brain is getting to the point where it can decipher this style of filmmaking. Andy Lau is a believable fighter, and Xiong Xin-xin does what he usually does, which is show up and kick the shit out of people. Nicholas Tse has about as much presence as a fighter as he does as an actor, but the rest of the cast is able enough to carry him. The final assault on Shaolin Temple is pretty spectacular, full of all the noble slow motion death you expect from such a film but with the added bonus of a well-executed artillery siege courtesy of that fantastic British general. The action scenes are not great, but they’re good enough to save the movie from the hollow, overwrought melodrama in which it wallows.
All in all, Shaolin isn’t a very good movie, and Benny Chan’s weakness as a director and the screenplay’s endless procession of cliche and hokum can’t be disguised by the big budget epic sheen — which is dulled considerably by the seemingly unquenchable desire of every modern filmmaker to make every film looked dull, washed out, and blue tinted. Seriously, the color palette in this film is so over-processed and dim that I thought the projector was messed up when I saw it. However, Shaolin is bad in a way that still allows it to be entertaining, and entertained I was. There is some good action, and the destruction of Shaolin Temple achieves the epic scope for which the film strives. It’s a shame that Chan didn’t recognize the event itself was powerful enough, and thus he feels the need to undermine it with lots of shots of people crying in slow motion or falling into the hands of a giant Buddha with rain-tears rolling down its face. I wouldn’t really give it much a recommendation, but if you happen across it, it’s dumb but harmless enough. Once people get past the big budget glaze, I think they’ll see Shaolin for what it really is: a hokey, badly acted, poorly written, astoundingly hammy, generally entertaining modern day equivalent to cheap, generic, moderately enjoyable old kungfu films.
At the same time, suffering through Shaolin‘s overplayed attempts at tragedy might make you wonder why you aren’t just watching Eight Diagram Pole Fighter or Shaolin Temple instead, and to that question, my only answer is, “Yeah, why aren’t you?”
Release Year: 2011 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Andy Lau, Fan Bing-Bing, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Jacky Wu, Yu Shaoqun, Xing Yu, Yue Hoi, Xiong Xin-Xin, Bai Bing, Sang Wei-Lin, Chen Zhi-Hui, Liang Jing-Ke, Shi Xiao-Hong | Screenplay: Chi Kwong Cheung, Cheung Tan, Alan Yuen | Director: Benny Chan | Cinematography: Anthony Pun | Music: Nicolas Errera | Producer: Benny Chan
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
Jimmy Wang Yu was one of the most colourful figures ever to emerge from the Hong Kong movie scene. He made his debut in Temple of Red Lotus in 1965, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that he became a megastar. The vehicle was Chang Cheh’s film The One-Armed Swordsman, a movie that gave birth to a new, bloodier and more anti-heroic trend in Hong Kong movies. Jimmy played the main character Fang Kang, a man who loses an arm and then has to learn a devastating one-limbed sword style. The film was so successful that it spawned an official sequel Return of the One-Armed Swordsman in 1969, also directed by Chang Cheh. Then in 1970 Jimmy appeared as The Chinese Boxer, in a movie considered to be the first ‘real’ kung fu film, beating Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss to Hong Kong screens by a year. But the one-armed swordsman persona wouldn’t leave him, and in 1971 he appeared in Shaw Brothers’ collaboration with Japan’s Daiei Motion Picture Co. Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, the 22nd entry in the popular series about a blind Samurai played by Shintaro Katsu.