The New York Asian Film Festival (read all our past coverage and reviews here) is one of the highlights of my year, and this year has been almost overwhelming. The number of films I want to see far exceeds the number of hours in the day I have to see them. The most impressive part of this year’s program, in my opinion, is the inclusion of some very rare Taiwanese exploitation films: Challenge of the Lady Ninja, A Life of Ninja, Woman Revenger, Lady Avenger, and the granddaddies of all Taiwanese “social issues” exploitation films, On the Society File of Shanghai and Never too Late to Repent, as well as the documentary, Taiwan Black Movies. Of the lot, I’ve heard of all of them but only ever seen Challenge of the Lady Ninja. Unfortunately, that remained the case throughout the festival, but I am hoping the work the NYAFF crew did in unearthing prints of these films might lead to them eventually finding their way onto DVD somewhere.
Stanley Tong sucks. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement on this Hong Kong director, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life, and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but first and foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars uninteresting and dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah together in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over.
China Strike Force was supposed to be his big comeback film, his grand return to Hong Kong, and at least financially he was successful. The movie made a lot of cash at a time when Hong Kong films were still recovering from an industry collapse that sent everyone reeling for over a decade. China Strike Force had a lot going for it. First, there was Aaron Kwok. For years, Kwok was plagued by his pretty-boy teen idol image and questionable choice of unbuttoned shirts covered in metallic blue feathers. It held him back and kept him from ever being taken seriously as a legitimate action star. Then he got a few years older, the wrinkles started to show here and there, and while he may still be a handsome lad, he started to get the age and character that would enable him to finally break through. A few more pounds and a few more scars and he’d be set to join the Hong Kong action set without looking out of place among the traditionally grizzled veterans. For whatever reason though — probably his unwillingness to give up tight sequined shirts and boas and such — he never really clicked, or he hit at a time when the action star was a thing of the past.
And then this film has Norika Fujiwara. You’d have to try real hard to find more of a knock-out than this woman. She was a model and a television actress in Japan before getting her big break in this film, and in getting her break, we’ve all received a break as well because she’s gorgeous and not nearly as untalented as most other models-turned-actress. Throw in direct-to-video American action king Mark Dacascos, and you have one of the best-looking casts around. I’ve always thought Dacascos deserved to be a bigger star than he was. Why is a guy who moves this well, who can act at least halfway decent, and who is a striking guy to boot, going direct to video? It’s unlikely at this point he’ll ever catch his break. Instead he’ll be doomed to a life not unlike Don “The Dragon” Wilson, which is at least a good doom. I wish I could be doomed to be pretty damn rich after making an endless string of low-budget action films.
China Strike Force itself has a pretty typical plot. Dacascos plays your run-of-the-mill young gangster guy who is intent on taking over the business, does not care for the tradition of honor, etc etc etc. These guys have been in about every gangster movie ever made in any country, but some old fart always trusts them, only to get shot in the back when the time is right. Aaron Kwok plays Darren, a hotshot cop who is always annoying his superiors. He has a partner who barely does enough memorable stuff to result in anyone remembering his name. He’s only there to die, as in one of the most contrived scenes even for an action film, the movie takes a break from all sorts of shooting and jumping about to feature a scene where Darren and his partner go out for dinner, and Darren asks his partner “So your wedding is soon?” They might as well flash up a big red “This guy is going to die!!!” subtitle. Everyone should know by now that in a cop film, the cop who is retiring, getting married, about to have a baby, or just bought a boat is always going to get wasted. It’s a time-honored tradition. Handled properly, it can be kind of funny. Handled without any finesse whatsoever, as it is here, it’s just plain annoying. As if that wasn’t predictable enough, he’s also marrying the chief’s daughter.
While the cops pal around, we learn that Dacascos plans to increase his underworld power by selling drugs. As is par for the course in this type of movie, the aging gangster who took Dacascos under his wing hates drugs and vows that his organization will never be a party to the selling of such foul goods, since we all know the triad dudes of the 60s and 70s were basically saints. Extortion, murder, prostitution, slavery, gun smuggling — these are all noble ventures, but drug peddling is right out. This news irks Dacascos’ partner in America, played by hip hop star Coolio, who is apparently not a fan of Weird Al Yankovich. Coolio plays your very stereotypical jive-talkin’, cigar-smokin’ hustler who’s only task in this movie is to say “Holy shit!” and “Cuz” or however you spell the slang for “cousin.” He’s pretty good at doing that, and luckily nothing else is demanded of him. To no one’s surprise but the old guy, Dacascos plots with Coolio, who’s character is actually named Coolio, to off the old man and take the business over.
Also thrown into the mix is Norika, who is an undercover Interpol agent trying to get info on the old man’s operation. Of course, no one knows she works for Interpol, as that is the general idea behind being undercover, but even someone who is still surprised by the plot twists in a Girls Gone Wild video can tell from her first scene that she’s an undercover cop. One thing I like about a film like China Strike Force is that I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for anyone. It’s all so plodding and obvious that it’s impossible to ruin any surprises. An underworld assassination at a big fashion show gives the film an excuse for two important things: a lot of sexy women parading about in skimpy panties, and the film’s first action sequence, in which Aaron Kwok chases the assassin through the streets of Hong Kong using a variety of vehicles. At one point, Stanley Tong even has the gall to completely rip off his own “moving motorcycle” stunt from Supercop, though he manages to screw it up more this time around by using a lot of wires to make the whole think look goofy instead of cool.
The first action scene sets the stage for what you can expect from the rest of the movie: something just isn’t right about it. Sure, there is a lot going on, but it just doesn’t click. The wires are employed so they can go “over the top,” but it winds up looking silly. In a fantasy film I don’t mind wires and flying. In a reality-based action film, I think they look out of place but can still be used with great effect. In this, however, they are used very clumsily, and they detract greatly from the potential impact of what could have been cool fights and action sequences. Actually, now that I rewatch it, the first action sequence is the best one in the movie. It almost, but not quite, achieves a flow and if nothing else is kind of cool because the assassin guy gets run over, hit by cars, punched, kicked, thrown off moving trucks, and even jumps off a giant bridge — yet he still shows up later in the movie only to get killed in the most boring, mundane way. Way to give us a potentially cool character then treat him like an afterthought. Thanks, Stanley.
But far more than wires and missed character opportunities is the glaring problem that has plagued Stanley Tong’s films since he first stepped behind the camera. He has no sense of pacing or rhythm. Tong started his career as a stuntman, and while we all know he can dream up and even perform some cool stunts, being able to properly film them is something else entirely. Tong’s action sequences never find a groove. They always feel disjointed and, as a result, awkward and sloppy. Part of the problem here is that he’s trying to make a kungfu action film with a cast that doesn’t have much kungfu skill, but even that can’t wash away Tong’s own lack of directorial skill since he brought the same plodding sense of confusion to action scenes involving Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, both proven commodities. What it boils down to, then, is that Stanley Tong just isn’t a very good director. Or rather, he’s an astoundingly mediocre director who makes astoundingly mediocre movies.
Anyway, lots of action film cliches follow. Rather than pay the assassin, who seems damn near indestructible and would seem to be a worthwhile investment, Coolio just kills the guy. Mark Dacascos does indeed kill the old guy and start selling drugs. Aaron Kwok’s partner does indeed die tragically. Aaron falls for Norika and, in an attempt to give us more T&A, has a pointless, out-of-place daydream about massaging her thigh. I’m all for T&A, male and female, but come on. Put a little effort into working it into the film. I mean, they had the T&A scene where Norika infiltrates Dacascos’ and Coolio’s gang by showing up in a tiny string bikini then stripping down to nothing to prove she isn’t wearing any wires or anything. That was an okay excuse for some T&A.
Eventually, Aaron and Norika close in on Coolio and Dacascos so they can have the big action blow-out. Just as Stanley Tong can’t direct an action scene, so too does he always blow the finale of his films. Supercop has both Yuen Wah and Ken Lo for Jackie and/or Michelle to fight, so they knock off both those guys in about one second in very offhand manners, and leave Jackie to face… an old guy. Police Story IV gives us an underwater fight scene — funny but fairly disappointing — before having Jackie slip around with a fake shark. Then of course Rumble in the Bronx completely forgot to even have a finale, so we just get Jackie Chan driving a hovercraft to a final showdown with… another old guy. This is worse than when the big final scene in Game of Death ended up being Bruce Lee versus… Gig Young. At least Gig Young was middle aged.
This time around, Tong tries to deliver an action-packed finale, but once again his own lack of skill as a director trips him and everyone else up. Mark Dacascos is a genuine martial arts bad-ass, or at least he can pull it off wonderfully on screen. So God forbid we include him in the final fight scene. No, let’s kill him off in the usual goofy, offhand manner. Let’s crush him with a purple pimp car dangling from a helicopter. Then let’s have a huge kungfu fight between the three people with the least amount of kungfu skill. Aaron Kwok versus Mark Dacascos could have been pulled off, and with a different director it might have even looked good. Coolio versus Aaron Kwok is about the stupidest damn fight scene I’ve seen in a long time, and that includes the fight scene in The Matrix where that woman jumps up in the air and strikes the most absurd looking “pouncing chicken” stance I’ve ever seen while she hovers and the camera pans around her.
Since Coolio and Norika are no martial artists, and Aaron Kwok is a passable on-screen kungfu star at best, that means we have to have a big gimmick to make up for the lack of interesting fight choreography. Tong’s answer? Have the whole fight scene take place on a teetering pane of glass dangling from a crane hundreds of feet up in the air. It might sound exciting at first, but think about it, and let me use this pro wrestling analogy. Many years ago, WCW had a pay-per-view match between the dull Dustin Rhodes and the even duller Blacktop Bully. The gimmick of the match was that the whole thing was going to take place on the trailer of a moving truck. It might have sounded cool at first, but the end result was two guys moving very, very slowly while trying to keep their balance as the truck poked along various lonely highways at speeds in excess of ten miles an hour.
This finale is that wrestling match. Norika, Coolio, and Aaron all scoot about very gingerly while trying not to fall off the glass. From time to time, one person or another will dangle off the edge or try to kick someone. And then Coolio finally falls, but only after one false change of heart. You know, where the villain is about to die, begs the hero to save him, and once being saved immediately reverts back to his dastardly ways. Heroes always fall for that shit. I mean, before you flew around with the purple pimpmobile dangling from a helicopter, he was selling crack to nine-year-old kids. Now all of a sudden he’s maybe not that bad a guy? They only do this so the hero can kill the villain without looking like a murderer. How many action movies end with the hero refusing to kill the villain, only to have the villain suddenly produce some weapon, thus justifying the hero turning around and offing the guy? It’s a weak cop-out. People want their bloodlust satisfied, but you also can’t just have a hero who hauls off and shoots people after beating their ass. In the end, Coolio falls off the glass and Norika and Aaron fall in love for no real reason. They were only together about two days, and most of that time was spent being hoisted around on wires and pretending Coolio knew kungfu.
The big problem with China Strike Force is how average it is. It’s impossible to completely blast it and say it’s awful, because it’s not. At the same time, it sure as hell ain’t a good movie. It’s just… bland. Poorly directed. Awkwardly paced. Horribly choreographed. Completely cliche. In the hands of a good director this could have been a good movie. In the hands of someone as incompetent as Stanley Tong, the movie never manages to rise above a mundane level. It takes a talented director to elevate poorly written action film nonsense into something memorable, and Tong does not have the tools for the task. As such, China Strike Force remains an unsatisfying, though not completely unentertaining, failure.
Given the uninspired direction, the film’s sundry flaws become impossible to ignore. The English language dialogue, of which there is quite a lot, is ludicrous. Who wrote this crap? I mean, it’s English. I recognize the words, but it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like English that was spit out of one of those online translation things that can get the vocabulary but fails utterly to comprehend nuances and grammatical rules. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue was recorded at a level barely audible to dogs and mice, let alone humans. Whenever a hip hop song plays — and they play often — suddenly it’s like you have the volume on eleven, but when they go back to speaking, everything is silent again. Thus watching this movie is a constant battle with the volume control. And speaking of English, what the hell is up with Mark Dacascos’ character? How are you going to become the lord of a vast Chinese criminal underworld if you don’t speak a lick of Chinese? Even people of Chinese ancestry I know who grew up in America know at least a few words in their grandparents’ tongue, but this guy doesn’t know a single phrase. Surely the Chinese triads would not be overly accommodating of a new boss who murders other bosses, can’t speak any Chinese, and brings Coolio to all the parties.
The film’s other big short-coming is, of course, the pacing. Stanley Tong can do no right when it comes to figuring out how to pace and stage an action sequence. He cuts when he should stay still, he shoots in close all the time so we can’t see anything. He never finds a rhythm or a flow for the action. He loves to go over the top, but only in ways that are ludicrous rather than breathtaking. The many action scenes in this film range from pedestrian to lumbering. You spend the whole scene waiting for something to be done well, then all of a sudden it’s over, leaving you with an empty feeling and no sense of satisfaction. And then sometimes it’s all too ludicrous, even for a Hong Kong action film. When Dacascos and Coolio are down at the docks watching the boys unpack a Ferrari or one of them other fancy sports cars, Aaron shows up and spoils the fun, leading to a completely unbelievable scene where Dacascos takes off in the sportscar and Aaron luckily happens upon a passing truck full of forumla one race cars which, despite the highly explosive nature, apparently ship fully gassed and ready to go. Of course, this all happens after the part in that first fight/chase scene where he rides a motorcycle up the flat vertical surface of a delivery truck’s rear door. I think he repeats that nifty trick at the end of the movie as well.
The finale, which is by and large a ripoff of the helicopter finale from Tong’s earlier Supercop, is hardly the pay-off I was hoping for. It’s not cool or original. It’s just, well, stupid. From the whole “car dangling from the helicopter” bit, to Mark Dacascos being killed without ever facing off against the heroes, to the completely disjointed and uninteresting “fight” between Norika, Aaron, and Coolio, Tong certainly tries a lot of stuff, but none of it works. To add insult to injury, Tong’s reliance on the most obvious and awkward of wire stunts makes it impossible to enjoy even on a visceral level. On the plus side, however, Norika looks great in her leather fightin’ outfit.
The acting is passable, but the roles aren’t very demanding. Aaron Kwok was coming along, but as of this film he was not quite there physically or in his acting skill. Norika is basically there to look good and kick some ass, and she is OK at both. When she has to act, it’s only the shallowest of deals. Even a paperdoll could pull it off, so no complaints. Dacascos is alright, but if he’s going to be a Chinese gangster, even one from America, he should have learned to fake his way through some Cantonese. Coolio is playing a stereotype, and you have to be really untalented not to pull that off. Everyone else is pretty forgettable. Aaron’s partner is so bland that when he dies, you hardly notice. His fiance is every bit his match in blandness, so that even though she loses her future husband and her father (not the same man), it really doesn’t matter all that much. The movie punctuates this by completely blowing her off at the end in exchange for a kissing scene between Norika and Aaron, which of course comes out of nowhere.
The only thing memorable about this film is how good it might have been if someone else had directed. As has always been the case, Stanley Tong was given all the pieces for a great film and just couldn’t make them fit together. I should have come away beaming and saying “That was great!!!” Instead, I walked away slowly thinking, “Well, that was average… I guess.” Awkward drama, awkward comedy, and awkward action sequences are tenuously strung together in what proves to be a very average film. Sure, it’s better than watching a Mario Van Peebles film, but around the same time as this movie was made, guys like Johnny To were raising the bar and giving us enjoyable, well-made action films and making Stanley Tong’s lack of skill even more glaring. He has no style, and he has no substance. In the end, China Strike Force, like most of his movies, is a bland and somewhat tedious exercise in paint-by-numbers film-making on the level of some of your more uninteresting direct-to-video action films. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again.
Release Year: 2000 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Aaron Kwok, Norika Fujiwara, Lee-Hom Wang, Ruby Lin, Coolio, Mark Dacascos, Ken Lo, Paul Chun, Siu-Ming Lau, Jennifer Lin, Benny Lai, Li Hsueh Tung | Screenplay: Stanley Tong, Steven Whitney | Director: Stanley Tong | Cinematography: Jeffrey C. Mygatt | Music: Nathan Wang | Producer: Andre Morgan, Stanley Tong, Barbie Tung | Original Title: Leui ting jin ging