One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
Con Licencia Para Matar (aka With License to Kill) is the second of a pair of films featuring Las Tigresas, a trio of catsuit-wearing female secret agents for hire. The first Tigresas film, Munecas Peligrosas (aka Dangerous Dolls) was a barely-there affair, with just enough of a plot on which to hang its numerous instances of padding. Con Licencia Para Matar, by contrast, would seem to be packed with enough plot for the both of them, complete with two competing sets of villains, including a beatnik scientist with a trio of super-powerful, green-faced androids at his command, and a blonde bombshell revolutionary who conceals her true designs under her cover as the owner of a posh go-go club. Despite all of this business, the film still manages to devote plenty of time to what seems to be the Tigresas films’ first order of business, that being the inclusion of lots of random musical numbers and scenes of the Tigresas lounging around their well-appointed bachelorette pad in various stages of undress.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his fucking mind.
I think by now, we’ve covered the demise of Hammer Studio in the 1970s enough times that I don’t need to go into much detail here. You should know the drill by now. The Hammer formula, which had been so bold in the early 50s and throughout the 60s, failed to keep pace with changing social values and cinematic trends so that, by the end of the 1960s, their once fierce and rebellious content looked quaint and old-fashioned compared to what everyone else was doing. Studio head Michael Carreras was thus desperate to right a sinking ship and discover some way to keep the studio afloat. On top of that, however, was lumped the general collapse of the British film industry, meaning that Carreras suddenly went from trying to save a sinking ship to trying to save a sinking lifeboat tied to a sinking ship. It is not, obviously, an enviable position in which to have been. But it was not an unwinnable situation, as other studios would prove. The key was to adapt. But it was with the task of adapting that Carerras proved singularly untalented despite — and likely because of — all else he’d accomplished.
Horror films had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to the pioneering films of Hammer. With the release of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, horror showed a marked move toward not just Satanic-themed films, but toward more cynical “evil triumphs” films. While major studios were finally deeming horror a genre worthy of their attention, low-budget and independent film makers were turning out stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, far more visceral and completely different from anything that had come before and certainly much more extreme than anything Hammer was willing or even able to produce with the BBFC looming over them. The focus of horror shifted significantly from England tot he United States, and since the United States had always been a major market for Hammer’s product, they found it hard to compete with the home team. Things were no different in mainland Europe, where the Italian giallo thrillers were also pushing the envelope far beyond what British censors would allow Hammer to get away with.
The boys from Bray may have pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence for ten years, but by the time “The End” appeared, good usually triumphed and the creature, either tragic or evil, was vanquished. But these new horror films were happy to let evil win. There was no way Hammer could compete with that, just as there was no way they could compete with a major Hollywood studio taking an interest in horror. Lower budget American horror film, largely produced by American International Pictures and their imitators, surpassed in sex and violence the Hammer product that had helped inspire them so many years before. AIP, in particular, seemed to understand that while there would always be big studio horror films aimed at adults, for horror to survive as a whole, a shift had to be made away from adults and toward teenagers. Teens, since the early days of AIP, had played a central role in the success of the studios films. Post World War II, there was a whole generation of young people who began earning money not to help the family survive, but so they could spend it on the stuff they wanted. Most films, however, were aimed either at adults or children. AIP stepped in and made movies for teenagers, and the results were solid gold.
Hammer, by contrast, had never really targeted teens as an audience. When, toward the end of the studio’s lifespan and desperate for some new revenue stream, Hammer finally tried to throw a bone to the younger generation, it was generally pretty feeble and had the feel of old men trying to write in the persona of a younger person about whom they knew next to nothing. Thus you get the goofball but not unappealing mixture of 60s mods and early 70s hippies that show up in Dracula AD 1972. But even disregarding the screwy attempts at seeming young, Hammer wasn’t speaking to the kids. Whenever AIP made a movie for teens, they were keen on making sure there were as few adults present as possible.
Those who were, were often ineffectual authority figures, crackpots, or oppressive parents against whom we rooted for the kids to rebel. In the end, it was the younger generation that saved the day, usually in some way that involved a surfing competition or young hot rodders zipping around a small southwestern town in their dune buggies. Hammer, by contrast, could never really divorce itself from authoritative paternal figures. So while Dracula AD 1972 may have been full of hep kids spewing misguided attempts at youth slang, it’s stolid old Peter Cushing who sweeps in to clean up the mess and save the day. And as photos have proven and our friend El Santo has said, you can dress Peter Cushing up in a hip hop jacket and baseball cap, but there’s still the stuffiest stuffy old man suit in the word beneath it all.
So Michael Carreras was creating a no-win situation for himself. On the one hand, he wanted to find something new and invigorating for the studio to do. On the other hand, his ideas were terrible and all seemed to revolve around comedies about people tripping while going up the steps of a public bus. On the one hand, he said Hammer needed a new direction, something away from horror or more in line with what modern horror had become. On the other hand (Hammer had a lot of hands), at the end of the day, all he could think of was to do the same old, same old, but with more nudity. He wanted to do something different, then he complained when directors tried to do something different. In a word, Michael Carreras was lost.
I don’t know what blinded him exactly other than having too many fires to deal with while being too stuck in his old ways, because the remedy he needed was right in front of him. With the tanks of both the Dracula and Frankenstein films very nearly empty, Hammer turned to three other stabs at vampire films in hopes that something might stick and give them a new franchise that would keep the studio hobbling along for at least another year. The most successful of these attempts was the Karnstein trilogy, three films based loosely on Carmilla and notable for being the point at which Hammer finally shrugged and started showing boobs (thanks largely to the involvement of AIP as a production partner). The trilogy produced two of Hammer’s very best horror films (Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil) and one of their very worst (Lust for a Vampire). The second attempt was Vampire Circus, in which the studio attempted to put a twist on their vampire theme by looking toward the dreamier, more hallucinogenic horror films of continental Europe (specifically France and Italy). It’s a very good movie, but it was simply too weird for Hammer, and possibly too weird for most British and American audiences, or so thought Carreras.
The third attempt was a curious combination of the studio’s tried and true vampire formula mixed with a dash of the old swashbuckling “pirate movies without pirate ships” Hammer made in the early 60s, combined with something Hammer had never put in any of their previous horror films: a sense of humor. This was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and it remains my very favorite Hammer film and one of my favorite films in general. A pity that Michael Carreras didn’t see things the way I did.
While Hammer in the 70s may have been flailing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a lot of great movies. In fact, it was likely because the studio was in such dire straights that they were willing to try almost anything — or at least claim that they would try almost anything, sort of like how I’ll claim to eat anything at least once, until someone actually calls my bluff and tries to stuff a grub in my mouth. This meant that an influx of new talent emerged from the long shadows of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and the rest of the extremely talented but rather aged old guard. Among the men employed by Hammer to try to freshen things up a big was Brian Clemens, best known at the time as one of the integral parts of the hugely popular British television series, The Avengers. In that way, perhaps, Hammer had hired one of the very men who was helping to destroy the studio. The success of The Avengers was unparalleled, and while it may have started out initially as just a television show, by 1967, it was being shot in color and boasting production values that would rival many films. On top of that, the series had the perfect blend of old guard, represented by Patrick MacNee as John Steed with his bowler and suits, and new — as embodied first by Honor Blackman, but then taken to a whole new level by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The scripts hewed to a basic formula, but they were highlighted by smart dialog and witty banter between the two incredibly likable leads. And even Steed, despite looking every bit the British gentleman, had a streak of rebelliousness and irreverence that made him appealing to younger viewers.
Production company ITC was quick to follow the example set by The Avengers, and before anyone knew it, British television was full of action and adventure series that were in color, trotted the globe (or at least parts of England made up to look like the globe), and took far more risks than more expensive, slower to adapt movies. If you were a bright young writer or director looking to do something unusual, you were much better off working on one of the many ITC shows — first espionage and, in the 70s, bad-ass cop shows. I don’t have the data to claim that these high production value shows were the main reason the film industry was hurting, but they certainly made a dent.
When Clemens got the chance to direct a film for Hammer, he went for it (The Avengers having wrapped up by that time). The story he brought with him was very much of The Avengers mode, with a sassier female character than Hammer had ever had before, a script full of wit and dark humor, and perhaps most striking of all, a hero. As Clemens described things, part of the problem he saw with Hammer’s Dracula films wasn’t so much that they were slaves to convention; it was that Dracula was the hero, or the anti-hero a the very least. Even though you knew he would die at the end, you still went to root for Dracula, because the people lined up as his nominal opponents were so incredibly forgettable and had been since the third film. Gone were the days when you had a hero as charismatic as Peter Cushing to cheer for. Dracula, Prince of Darkness had that gun-toting friar, but since him, who was there to go against Dracula? A seemingly endless parade of trembling clergymen and forgettable young blond guys named Paul. For lack of anything else, audiences began to side with Dracula — which is a testament to just how boring the heroes were, since Dracula usually had about five minutes of total screen time and spoke like three sentences.
Clemens wanted to change that, to give audiences a vampire movie where the vampires were the bad guys again and where there was a proper hero for whom people could root. For this character, Clemens drew largely upon the swashbuckling heroes of the past, and so was born Kronos, a vampire hunter — possibly immortal himself — possessed of a mysterious history, a knowing smirk, and a professor friend who, while older and wiser, is far away from the “knows what’s best for you” paternalism of Cushing’s Van Helsing. There was something of the counter-culture about both Kronos and his adviser, Professor Hieronymos Grost. Grost’s knowledge, after all, is of an arcane and in some cases profane nature, and if Kronos was a captain in some army, it must have been the same army as Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes. They seem both to have eschewed the traditional authoritative hierarchy of academia and the military in favor of just cruising around on their own, doing their own thing. This lack of respect for authority extends as well to other circles of the upper class: religious leaders, community leaders, the rich and powerful — Grost and Kronos seem happiest away from these types, camping out in a barn with a hot servant girl they rescued from being executed.
Clemens further twists the traditional vampire movie formula by proposing a world in which there are as many different types of vampires as there are types of dog, each with its own unique characteristics, powers, and weaknesses. In another nod to the film’s appeal to youth over tradition, the vampires against which Kronos finds himself pitted do not drain their victims of blood, but of youth. Likewise, the way in which you kill one vampire might not work on another (a conundrum which results in the film’s most devilishly funny scene, in which Kronos and Grost cycle through the entire array of ways they know to kill vampires, until they finally find one that works). In a way, this representation of vampires is a natural outgrowth of the theories on vampirism presented by Cushing’s Van Helsing way back in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. Back then, before Dracula became a Satanic prince of evil and conjured demon, Van Helsing framed the vampire in purely scientific terms. They were a part of our natural world, albeit a part that did not conform to the behavior one expected of creatures who looked like humans. Vampirism was a communicable disease rather than some Satanic curse or the result of corny rituals. Captain Kronos seems to pick this thread up and expand it, creating an entirely new species within which there are many natural variations.
Although I can’t say for certain if it was intended as such, it also works as a pointed satirical jab at the vast proliferation of ways in which you could kill and resurrect Dracula that were created out of necessity to facilitate yet another sequel. By the end of things, vampires were being killed by stakes, crucifixes, icy creeks, hawthorn bushes, lightning, windmills…who could keep track? So in the world of Kronos, you never quite know what will kill a vampire. Tradition does not work. Nor do you know exactly what effect its bite will have on you. As I said, I don’t think it’s an accident that the vampires in this film prey upon the young and drain them of their youth. In the climate of the 1970s, it’s the established powerbase exploiting the young, crushing them under the weight of an increasingly creaky traditional society, draining them of their vitality even as the vampires feed upon it for their own energy.
Although other Hammer films had taken swipes at certain established authority figures — witness, for example, the corrupt men in Taste the Blood of Dracula, or the ineffectual and cowardly priest in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave — this one the first time since perhaps The Pirates of Blood River that the studio gave audiences an uppity, charismatic, young firebrand willing to buck the system. Hell, Kronos even smokes the occasional 18th century doobie! At last, there was a Hammer movie and a Hammer hero that young people could actually get behind and perhaps even relate to. Someone who was more like one of them rather than like a parent, standing around waiting to disapprove and tell the whippersnappers how to properly do things.
Clemens’ movie is different right out of the gate. Just as he was a Hammer outsider, working with a cast composed largely of newcomers and outsiders, he also went outside the norm in searching for a composer and a style of music to accompany the film. He tapped Laurie Johnson, who had worked previously on The Avengers, among many other projects for film and television, to give the movie a theme that stood in stark contrast to the masterful but overly familiar “Hammer horror sound” created primarily by James Bernard. Bernard’s scores were heavy, bombastic, and thunderous. Johnson’s theme for Captain Kronos, however, is fast-moving and much lighter. It’s a combination of a theme from a swashbuckling film with the theme from a horror film, very much a reflection of Grost and Kronos themselves. Where as Bernard’s themes stalk and stomp, Johnson’s theme here gallops and parries.
Far away from the three piece Harris tweed and pocket watch look of most vampire hunters, Kronos is a mixture of pirate and soldier in appearance, with bushy blond hair and a rapier. Grost, by contrast, is a bespectacled, goateed hunchback, though he’s far from grotesque. They are two halves of a whole — the muscle and charm in Kronos, the brains and wit in Grost. For the lead role, they cast German actor Horst Jansen, and he certainly looks the part. Tall, confident, sexy, and swaggering. Even though they’re in the same profession, there’s very little of Van Helsing about the man. Kronos looks less likely to have been spending his days steeped in researching of arcane folklore and more likely to be lying on the beach, a tan young woman on one side and his surfboard on the other. What he learns, he learns through experience or via the wise counsel of Grost. Unfortunately, Jasen’s limited English results in something of a wooden performance, though for me it never really mars the film, as he’s carried by John Cater as Grost, a more than capable actor who is so good and so charming in his role that you don’t even notice most of the time that he’s a hunchback — though on occasion I mistook him for Lenin. Luckily, Grost is way more fun to be around and is a lot less likely than Lenin to have you executed for some trifle.
The duo is en route to a town that has been plagued by a series of mysterious attacks on young people who are found after the attack drained of decades and aged to the point of death. Kronos stops to liberate a beautiful young gypsy woman (Caroline Munro, recently featured in the studio’s Dracula AD 1972), who has been condemned for something Kronos and Grost find idiotic by men whom Grost and Kronos find equally idiotic. Thankful for her liberation, she swears servitude to the two adventurers, and while neither man seems overly keen on having a slave, neither does any man seem to find much fault in being accompanied everywhere by Caroline Munro in a peasant blouse with a plunging neckline. And later, when she offers herself to Kronos, he does what any man would do, and does not hesitate. A hero who smokes weed and enjoys sex? Where do they come up with this crazy stuff?
Kronos and Grost have been summoned by their old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who resides in the beleaguered town and knows that his two friends specialize these days in dealing with such peculiarities. Kronos, in particular, has it in for vampires, as both his mother and sister were killed by one. And while the process of draining a victim of youth rather than blood is slightly beyond the pale of a traditional vampire, Grost recognizes that tradition only accounts for a small percentage of what people know or don’t know about vampires. Soon the gang is on the case, sword fighting and riddle solving their way to the culprit behind the strange murders.
The overriding philosophy behind this movie seems to be that Hammer horror hadn’t been scary for a long time, and it wasn’t going to be scary anymore. So why not make one that was exciting? And that’s exactly what Clemens did. Captain Kronos moves fast and boasts plenty of action. Jansen may be a bit stiff with his lines, but he looks good in a fight scene, and he gets plenty of them. Clemens’ experience with television meant he knew a lot about taking a meager budget and limited sets and making them seem far more lavish and expansive than they actually were. The result is one of the best looking films Hammer made during the period. Clemens made a lot of use of outdoor locations, which when coupled with the tone of the story makes Captain Kronos feel much more epic than the largely soundstage-bound Dracula films. He pulls off an epic feel, or at least a mini-epic feel, in much the same way John Gilling did when directing the “pirate movies without pirate ships” for Hammer a decade earlier.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Cater and Carson are old hands, and they deliver the goods as all solid British pros know how to do. Caroline Munro was on the fast track to becoming an icon, and while her role here as the gypsy Clara isn’t as iconic as, say, the space bikini in Star Crash, it’s still a role that is both energetic and sexy. There’s something about the woman that simply transcends everything. They really don’t make them like her anymore, do they? While her role here may not be as meaty as the lads’, it’s still one of the best developed female roles Hammer ever had. There’s no doubt as to why she became an icon. She has more charisma than my brain can even process.
If Hammer was looking for something new, a franchise upon which to hang the fortunes of the studio, they had found it. Captain Kronos is just that good. Unfortunately, Carreras was waiting around like one the youth sucking vampires from the movie. In Carreras’ own words, he visited the set one day to see how things were going and was aghast at what he saw. Clemens and his crew, Carreras felt, were not handling the material with the proper gravitas. Instead, they were making light of things, having a bit of fun, injecting a wicked sense of humor into a previously humorless genre. Clemens did not, according to Carreras, get it. He didn’t understand the proper tone of a Hammer horror film the way the old guys did. In other words, Carreras hired Clemens to give him something fresh and inventive, and then he got pissed off when Clemens gave him just that.
As much as Carrereas’ attitude irritates me, and as much as it embodies everything that was wrong with Hammer’s attempts to adapt to the changing times, it’s hard to lie the failure of Captain Kronos to become a franchise player entirely at the feet of the floundering studio head. Audiences had already lost interest in Hammer. The studio was done for. It would have taken a miracle to save it, and while Captain Kronos is cracking good entertainment, it’s not a miracle. Along with audiences, distributors had lost interest in Hammer as well. One of the things that had kept Hammer afloat was their fruitful partnership with American distributors. But those days were over, because Americans were doing Hammer better than Hammer, and under a ratings code that was far more liberal than what the British Board of Film Censors wanted to be. As such, it took almost two years for Captain Kronos to get released, and by that time, the game was over. Hammer had used up the last of its audience good will, and viewers didn’t embrace the film despite the fact that the few reviews it received were generally positive.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? Clemens vision for Captain Kronos as a film series was pretty cool, with Kronos appearing throughout different periods across the centuries, carrying on his battle with the undead and revealing that there was a much longer history behind the man than has hinted at in the first movie. When it was evident that there was no way Hammer was going to make it, and thus there would be no second or third Kronos film, talk shifted to production of a television series. Nothing ever came of that, either, and with the exception of a few appearances in a Hammer comic book, Kronos faded from existence until more recently, when it was rediscovered and people started thinking, “Holy crap, this movie is great!” Now it enjoys a lace in many people’s top five Hammer films, making it sort of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the vampire movie world.
Which is doubly fitting since that once-maligned entry into the James Bond Franchise was saddled with a stiff leading man and found itself situated in a time when the series was trying to recover from the loss of the iconic Sean Connery (and the rise of social discontent). Like Horst Jansen, George Lazenby was top notch in the action scenes though, and just as Horst had a cool sidekick and a gorgeous gal, Lazenby was carried by a cool ally and the best Bond girl of all time, The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg.
What’s more, it’s a shame Hammer couldn’t pull out of the collapse. Maybe if Captain Kronos had been a bigger box office hit, and maybe if Michael Carreras had shown a little faith in the film, then Hammer could have made good on that tantalizing poster art for movies they intended to make but never had a chance to get to. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or didn’t hope Hammer wold make good on all that cheesecake nudie sci-fi artwork on the poster for When the Earth Cracked Open. Sure, they probably would have ended up less like the insanely awesome movies in my mind and more like one of those “lost world” films from Amicus Studio, but you know what? I loved those “lost world” movies from Amicus, so I would have been pretty psyched to watch something in which cheap looking little models of biplanes and blimps go head to head with wobbly pterodactyls on strings.
But those are exercises in what might have been, and while fun, the fact is there was never a Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or a Captain Kronos series. No Kronos fighting vampires down through the ages. What we have instead is a single Captain Kronos that happens to be an incredibly good film. It’s really everything I want from my entertainment. Fast paced, witty, irreverent but also a very good entry into the genre with which it is toying. I don’t think I’d argue that there aren’t flaws for people to find in the film, but if they are there, I’m not really all that concerned with finding them. Had this been the last film Hammer made, it would have been a perfect swan song. Our heroes, riding off beyond the horizon to face down evil. Would we ever see them again? Who knows?
Instead, Hammer ended up with a few more death twitches and even more misguided attempts at finding a new market. Among these were an ill-advised attempt to replace the lost American market with the exploding Hong Kong market by partnering with the Shaw Brothers studios to produce two films: the plodding action caper Shatter starring Stuart Whitman and Shaw Bros superstar Ti Lung, and the entertaining but ridiculous Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, starring Peter Cushing and Shaw Bros’ star David Chiang. Both were attempts to cash in on the rising kungfu craze, and both failed. In the case of Shatter, it was hard to convince audiences that they should stop watching Bruce Lee and Five Fingers of Death and concentrate instead on a movie in which Stuart Whitman wanders around. It was like trying to convince Hong Kong audiences in the 80s to stop watching Jackie Chan and embrace Steven Seagal. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires featured Cushing as Van Helsing, traipsing around China, but it never really feels like an actual Dracula film — possibly because venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee finally made good on his boast and refused to appear in the picture, even though Dracula transforms into a Chinese guy in the very beginning of the picture. Instead, it feels like a Shaw Brothers kungfu film into which Peter Cushing wandered by accident. It’s pretty fun, in my opinion, but there’s no mystery as to why it wasn’t the film that salvaged Hammer’s reputation.
The end to Hammer horror finally came in 1976, in the form of To the Devil…A Daughter, Hammer’s painfully horrible attempt to cash in on the devil worship movie craze that seized us in the 70s. Too bad the film was dreadful — in my opinion the only completely unwatchable horror film Hammer ever made. It’s too bad Kronos wasn’t around to put that one down before it sucked so much life out of us. But so it goes, and whatever might have happened doesn’t change how much I enjoy Captain Kronos.
I suppose I’m happy to be watching these films after the fact. I’ve never felt that Hammer films were stodgy or old-fashioned, or that they had dated poorly, but that’s probably because I’m watching them from a vantage point removed from the original cycle. If I’d been able to write reviews in the late 60s or early 70s, I probably would have been complaining about the lack of originality, so on and so forth. I love Hammer films. I love the old ones. I love the ones from the 70s. Heck, I even enjoy failures like Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Lust for a Vampire. In nearly two decades of film production, Hammer made one solitary horror film I can say I hate. That, my friends, is not a bad record, and I guess if I’d been in the shoes of Michael Carreras, I would have been as confused as he was. But then, I’m just a writer and a fan, not the head of a studio. I expect more from him than I would from myself, what with how it was his job and all. I appreciate everything the pioneers did — Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, John Gilling — my God but they made some incredible films. And I love the years in which Hammer was trying to figure the strange new world out. I love Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and I don’t hate Lust for a Vampire or even Horror of Frankenstein. So flailing or not, misguided or not, with the final credits having rolled on Hammer (I’ll believe the persistent “we’re back!” press releases and announced productions when I see at least one final product), all I can do is raise a glass of brandy to them (I prefer scotch, but what would Peter Cushing say?) and say, with complete earnestness, “Thank you.”
It’s hard to write about these old Turkish superhero movies–especially those directed by Yilmaz Atadeniz–without making reference to the Republic serials of the 1940s. The problem with doing so, however, is that many of you young people out there, with your newfangled transistor radios and souped-up hotrods, will have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose the appropriately curmudgeonly response to that would be to refuse to continue this review until you’ve educated yourselves on the topic, instead filling space with horrific, Andy Rooney-like ruminations on how butter doesn’t taste the way it used to and why on earth is the print in Reader’s Digest so small until you return with at least one complete viewing of The Perils of Nyoka or some-such under your belts. But, as much as the thought of such an exercise appeals to me, I’m afraid I can’t do so in good conscience. The fact is that those serials were meant to be seen in a very specific context, a context which simply doesn’t exist anymore. Despite what I said previously, I’m actually not old enough myself to have seen them as they were originally presented–i.e in weekly installments as part of a Saturday matinee at the local movie house presented to an audience that I imagine as being made up entirely of young boys in immaculate baseball caps and striped shirts with names like Skip, Biff and Scooter.
So far, our examination of old fashioned vampires in modern day settings has covered Dracula, in the Hammer Studios films Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula, and some guy named Count Sinistre, from the previously obscure British horror film Devils of Darkness. But this trend of placing traditional vampires in a modern (well, 1970s) setting actually started in America, with a low-key film called Count Yorga, Vampire.
Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
Teleport City is, by and large, a cult film site. It would seem, upon first impression, that a film like Captain Blood, or many of the old films that I regularly watch, would be ill at home here. After all, they are classics. Does anyone need one more person telling you Captain Blood is great? Or that any of these old films are great? I mean, everyone already knows that, right? It’s common knowledge, and everyone has seen these films a thousand times. Well, while that may have been true at some point, it hardly holds up well today. In fact, even many of the best-known films of the 50s and earlier have, in today’s pop cinema landscape, been so completely forgotten that they have achieved a level of obscurity that rivals that of any of the other cult films we might be prone to discussing. This they accomplish despite being widely available, widely discussed in the past, and cherished by the handful of people who still bother with old black and white films.
But for many people, and through no real fault of their own (it’s hard to seek out and watch something if no one tells you it exists), these films might as well be as mysterious and esoteric as a Filipino superhero film in which a woman in a silver space bikini fights a vampire. The sources to which these people (and by “these people,” I mean those who are roughly my age or younger) — often do not mention old films, and so they become forgotten relics despite their merits and the best efforts of Turner Classic Movies (also known as the cable channel most in need of going HD). Additionally, older films have the reputation of being crude and overly talky, full of antiquated melodrama, weird acting styles, crummy special effects, and endless scenes of well-dressed people sitting around in living rooms doing nothing at all. Where this impression of older films come from, I am not entirely certain, because anyone who takes the time to dig a little deeper into cinema’s past has discovered that action, adventure, and intrigue were staples of the film industry of the 30s and 40s just as much as they are today, and in many cases, the action, adventure, and stuntwork on display in black and whites from bygone eras surpasses anything that is done today, hamstrung as we are by an over-reliance on CGI and insurance-related litigation.
I am confident that the type of people who seek out the movies regularly discussed on Teleport City are the same people who are open to (if not already actively engaged in) exploring older films and understanding that most of the conceptions people have about them are wrong. And so, a film like Captain Blood, or Gunga Din, or any of the old noir and Poverty Row thrillers we’ll be getting to in due time, actually fit in at Teleport City every bit as well as the films of Jess Franco or Antonio Margheriti. Turning up amazing and forgotten films doesn’t always require you to travel to Manila and spend a month digging through the crates out back of a grimy video rental store. Sometimes, all you have to do is skip the “Midnight Movies” section of wherever you go to rent or purchase films, and walk (or click) over to the “Classics” section.
Which brings us, with a shorter digression than usual, to Captain Blood. I watched a lot of black and white adventure films when I was a kid. There was no cable television where I lived, and there were no VCRs, so you were left with whatever they played on regular television (which, back then, went off the air around one in the morning and wasn’t filled with nothing but Everybody Loves Raymond reruns), and that often meant watching black and white films, most likely because the rights to them could be had for cheap, and they were likely to be acceptable for television broadcast without the need for much editing. So I developed a taste for them, because really, that’s all we had save for the Godzilla films on the weekend. However, through some cruel twist of fate, I never saw any old pirate movies. I saw plenty of other types of adventure films, and I’m pretty sure I saw Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick at least once a week, but if I saw any of the old swashbuckling pirate films, I don’t remember them — and given my bizarre propensity for remembering weird things like that, it seems unlikely that I would have sat through an Errol Flynn pirate movie and not remembered it.
Ahhh, Errol Flynn. Allow me, if you will, to indulge for a moment one of my gentlemanly crushes — or admiration, if flirtations with homosexuality make you uncomfortable for some reason (and if they do, you need to grow a little more backbone). I have never shied away from such things and see no reason to do so. My taste in men falls primarily along the traditional lines of masculinity as defined in the 30s and 40s my matinee idols like Errol Flynn and Clarke Gable. Bogart and Mitchum. Cary Grant, of course. And wiry little Fred Astaire for his amazing power to look amazing in clothes no man should be able to pull off. Even with today’s leading men — a talent pool largely devoid of any real charisma or air of rugged masculinity — I gravitate toward the few men who radiate that old-school air (which smells of mentholated shaving cream and woody musk): Clooney, Denzel, drunken Russell Crowe, and lately Josh Brolin. And this guy at the climbing wall at my gym.
But few and far between are the lads who cut such a shape as the men of the 30s and 40s. They knew how to dress, they knew how to throw a punch, they knew how to drink, and they knew how to handle the ladies except for Bette Davis, who no one could handle nor should much want to. Of these men, I was early on familiar with the films of Bogart and Gable, Grant and of course Mitchum — who was and remains still my Grandpa Harley’s favorite actor and role model in life (photos of my grandfather as a young man are striking in their likeness). But while I knew Flynn by name, I knew practically nothing about his films and had never seen one until much later in my life. Ah well, so much the better. It’s always nice to know something is waiting just over the horizon, yet to be discovered. Since then, I’ve worked hard to improve my familiarity with Flynn, his tumultuous life, and his films. And now you, dear reader, get to be the recipient of my hard-earned knowledge, so long as “hard-earned” means “I read a book.”
Flynn’s career as a leading man began with Captain Blood. Before this movie, he had a couple small roles but had done very little that would make people sit up and take notice. 1935 was a big year for filmmaking, and a number of my favorite big-budget (for the time) adventure films come from that year — Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clarke Gable, Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades, among other films. Additionally, 1935 saw the release of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which I have not seen but am keen to do so, as it stars Gary Cooper and deals with one of my sundry pet obsessions — that being the portrayal in Western cinema of Raj-era India (and from a time when India was still a British colony). Somewhere amid that parade of bright lights and star power, Warner Brothers decided to release a pirate film by a director no one knew and starring two leads no one had ever heard of. Pirate movies were difficult enough as it was. During the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks was able to buckle his swashes all over the place, but with the introduction of sound, production of seafaring fare became problematic, as the technology and technique was not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with all the creaking, cracking, and crashing that comes with filming on a ship and on the ocean.
This resulted in swashbucklers that were less about the swashing of buckles (or is the buckling of swashes) and more about guys sitting around inside their cabin — which could be conveniently created on a studio sound stage. Captain Blood, as Warner’s film was to be called, was to be an attempt to return to the more action-oriented style of Fairbanks, troubles with sound recording on the high seas be damned. But there were other problems facing the production. The first actor to whom Warner offered the role of Captain Blood turned it down, as did the second. That left them flailing, somewhat, until finally they settled on taking a chance on one of their bit players, a Tasmanian by the name of Errol Flynn. Playing opposite him as the lead female was another newcomer, Olivia de Havilland. Unknown starlets were one thing and hardly uncommon. They could easily be made into overnight sensations by pairing them with an established leading man. But now, Captain Blood was saddled with two newcomers, and on top of that, it was being directed by Michael Curtiz, a man whose experience lay almost entirely in the early, silent days of filmmaking and who was hardly a name to contend with spectacle-makers like Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille. I’m not sure what Warner Brothers’ expectations for the film’s performance were at the time, but it’d be hard to argue that it was anything but an underdog and that Warner was taking a gamble when they bet their million dollars on this unproven cast.
Captain Blood tells the story of righteous Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn), who finds himself on the wrong end of King James’ temper during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was previously known as James Scott and more previously still as James Croft, the illegitimate son of King Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth was a title created specifically for him, presumably to keep him out of the hair of other contenders for the throne. It didn’t work. When Charles died and James II, Monmouth’s uncle, was crowned King of England, Monmouth — who had a long and distinguished military career — felt severely slighted. He had himself crowned king in exile (he was, at the time, living in the Dutch provinces), and in 1685 launched a revolt meant to bring down James II and the Catholic-influenced reign. The rebellion, like many rebellions, started off strong, but when people started dying, the rebellion went the way of so many others. People deserted Monmouth en masse, and before too long, his rebellion was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoore.
Monmouth himself was captured, tried, and executed. It is during this battle that our hero Peter Blood — himself no fan of James II but also of the opinion that the Duke of Monmouth was going to be just as rotten — is asked to save the life of a wounded man. Blood, having no committed political leaning, relies instead on his sacred oath as a doctor, which compels him to help those he can. When King James’ men bust in and find him, they aren’t as keen on the Hippocratic Oath as Blood, and he soon finds himself in prison and on trial for treason. Brought before a judge whose only interest is in sending men to the gallows, the future looks bleak for the well-meaning and eloquent doctor, until King James is convinced that, aside from being hugely unpopular with the people, his gory orgy of retribution and hanging is a waste of manpower that would be better used as slaves in the colonies of the New World. So it is that Blood finds himself spared from the noose but shipped off toward a fate often considered far worse. Incidentally, my own ancestors from Scotland followed pretty close behind him, getting themselves in a spot of trouble in 1689 and finding themselves shipped off to some place called America — or so the family legend goes. Family legend also includes my grandfather beheading Adolf Hitler, so read into that what you will.
In Jamaica, Blood continues to be uppity and proud and smart, a trait that immediately rubs local plantation Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) the wrong way. However, Bishop’s niece Arabella (de Havilland) takes a liking to Blood and purchases him for ten pounds, only to discover that he is hardly thankful to her, as slavery is still slavery. Blood finds himself in considerably better standing than his fellow slaves when his skills as a doctor are put to use healing the governor, who suffers from a painful bout o’ gout. Still as he is a man of honor and a natural-born leader, he does everything he can to protect his boys and irritate Bishop, who is infuriated that Blood’s role as doctor to the governor allows hims to get away with so much. Blood eventually hatches an escape plan, though he runs into a snag when a Spanish warship attacks the city. In the ensuing chaos, Blood leads the slaves first to freedom, then across the bay, where they board the Spanish warship while its proper owners are busy looting the town. Possessed now of their freedom and a fine ship, but not a home, Blood drafts a series of Buccaneers’ Articles, and so begins their lives as pirates.
Watching Flynn in this role, it’s hard to believe this is his first time as a leading man. He handles the role with astounding proficiency. It is impossibly not to cheer for Captain Blood, and the script provides Flynn ample opportunity to deliver stirring speeches about freedom and tyranny, punctuated by scenes of guys firing muskets and cannons and swinging from the rigging of giant sailing ships. Flynn handles his stirring speeches with the same aplomb as he does the action scenes. He is the very definition of roguish charm, and he is assisted by a series of perfect foils, which include the thoroughly loathsome Colonel Bishop and the shifty French pirate Levasseur (played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone). Although it happened somewhat by chance, it seems that, in the end, Captain Blood was constructed purely to turn Errol Flynn into the dashing, swashbuckling heartthrob he became. Recognizing the chance that has fallen into his lap, Flynn does not disappoint.
Although Flynn is the center of attention, Olivia de Havilland fares well to, The script by Casey Robinson grants her a stronger character than was usual for the time, while still keeping her as a believable member of the female sex during the late 1600s — as opposed to modern tendencies to create strong women by flying in the face of history and filling themselves with scantily-clad, often skinny warrior-women who are, for some reason, all proficient at Chinese style swordplay and martial arts. Arabelle may not take part in the swashbuckling, but when it comes to nerve and intelligence, she is nearly the match of Blood and very much the superior of Colonel Bishop. She had Flynn strike up an easy chemistry that makes the romantic portion of the film believable. There’s no question why a woman would fall in love with Blood, and there’s very little mystery behind Blood’s attraction to Arabella. The two young stars were paired in subsequent films, and rumors persisted that the two of them were romantically involved off-screen as well, though de Havilland has always denied this, citing Flynn’s status as a married man — which is sort of a novel defense, knowing what we know about Flynn and his voracious appetite for drinking and womanizing.
These appetites would plague him throughout his life, culminating in a statutory rape charge he was eventually found not guilty of — though even a Flynn fan like me has to question the accuracy of the outcome given that, later in his life, Flynn was courting a fifteen-year-old. But for the most part, Flynn’s off-screen dalliances and poor judgment did little to tarnish his popularity or his image as a noble hero. More damaging to his career was his failure to enlist in World War II (can you imagine a current leading man’s career being damaged on account of his failure to enlist?) while still playing war heroes on-screen. In fact, Flynn had enlisted — several times, and to every branch of the armed forces. Each time he was rejected on account of a series of health issues that included a weak heart (he suffered several heart attacks throughout his life), a bout with tuberculosis and malaria, and a permanently injured back. The film studio was unwilling to publicize Flynn’s reason for not serving, as they felt that it was better to keep a tight lid on the star’s growing health concerns. Thus, Flynn was left behind to make films like Objective Burma while the war was won by guys like Jimmy Stewart.
As I siad, the two newcomers are anchored by a solid supporting cast headed up by Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill. Both make for memorable villains, though Atwill’s merely rotten Bishop is left in the wake of Rathbone’s lamboyant French pirate. Although he’s only on-screen briefly, there’s no forgetting him. At the time, Rathbone was on the cusp of super-stardom. Having already eked out a comfortable career for himself as a supporting player, Rathbone would rocket to fame when he took on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Both Rathbone and Atwill are fondly remembered by horror fans for their work in that genre as well. Both of them play wonderfully off the fresh-faced and enthusiastic Flynn, and the duel between Rathbone and Flynn is one of the all-time greats.
Whatever his personal demons may have been, Captain Blood turned Flynn into a superstar, and the role defined the type of role he would play for most of his career just as it defined the swashbuckling hero. Flynn went on to star in more pirate films, including the wonderful Sea Hawk, as well as series of adventure films that includes The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Objective Burma, They Died With Their Boots On, and The Dawn Patrol, alongside his real-life friend David Niven. Other actors were quick to work within the persona created by Flynn, including Tyrone Power, who sometimes did it almost as well as Flynn. But almost means that, to this day, Flynn remains the very last word in swashbuckling heroes.
Director Micahel Curtiz fared much worse after this film. Although he went on to direct a number of the above-mentioned Errol Flynn swashbucklers, his career was all but killed when he took yet another huge gamble — this time casting an actor known almost entirely for playing b-grade heavies in crime films as a romantic lead. That actor was Humphrey Bogart, and the movie, which was released under the title Casablanca, is all but forgotten these days. In reality, of course, Curtiz did all right. He even made a habit of giving unproven actors a big break. Flynn, and then Bogart as a romantic lead. Later in his career, Curtiz was one of the few directors who was willing to give Elvis Presley a real role, that being King Creole, which is generally regarded by many as Elvis’ one truly great film and performance. Curtiz, having cut his teeth in silent era market of Europe, brings many of the sensibilities of those films into Captain Blood (and many subsequent films). Chief among these is his use of shadows and lighting, which is used to great effect many times throughout the film. Curtiz also solves the problem of shooting on location and around the ocean with a clever use of sets, location shooting, and convincing use of miniatures. Ship decks and cabins are sets, put into context with shots of actual ships on the ocean. The battles are staged in a similar fashion, and the sword fight between Blood and Levasseur is yet another combination of set and location.
Curtiz solution for the sound while shooting on a beach or aboard a ship is simple: he doesn’t use sound. Blood and Levasseur’s duel is shot without sound and on an actual beach, relying instead on the music by Erich Korngold to do the talking. When there is dialog, Curtiz switches to a series of convincing sets. He handles ship settings in the same way, restricting dialog to scenes that can be created on a set while scenes of actual ships are accompanied by Korngold’s orchestration and the foley artist’s ample cannon shots. The battles — and there are several good ones — also rely on miniature work mixed with actual ships, and are achieved with a remarkable degree of effectiveness. The final battle, in particular, in which Blood and his men take on a duo of French warships, is particularly exciting and well executed. There are several shots where I have no idea whether or not they’re using miniatures or actual ships.
I doubt anyone guessed Captain Blood would become the perfect storm of stars, director, music, and spirit that it did, but that’s usually how it happens. As far as swashbucklers and pirate movies go, you’d be hard pressed to find one better, and if you did, it would probably also star Errol Flynn. As far as my opinion goes, I hardly have much more to add. Although I was late in coming to this ad other Flynn films, I consider it one of the absolute best adventure films ever made, crammed to bursting with strong characters, great ship-to-ship battles, sword fights, and romance. The film proved to be a tremendous hit, nabbing an Oscar nominations for best picture (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was also nominated, but all fell before the might of The Mutiny on the Bounty) as well as sound direction. In addition, in 1935 you were still allowed to cast write-in votes, and as a result, Michael Curtiz found himself nominated for best directing honors, Casey Robinson for best screenplay, and Erich Korngold for his score. In a field that was very thick, this film full of and by unknowns didn’t do too bad.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
Rough times for the industry means rough times for fans as well. Here in the United States, folks were hit with the double whammy of there being very few films worth seeing, and the few that were worth seeing were often snapped up by domestic distributors like Disney and Miramax, who would then do one of two things. They’d either stick the film in their vaults and forget about it, effectively eliminating it from circulation in the United States, or they’d do a horrendous dub chop, cut the film to ribbons, and mix in a cheap hip-hop soundtrack, being certain to include the song “Kungfu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in any and every Asian film possible. I really wonder at this point if the people who decide to put that song in these movies think they’re the first to do it. Did they miss the last ten releases from their same company using the same song? Will the hilarity never be exhausted?
Of course, die-hard fans could always shop overseas and find most (but not all) titles available online in their original language and uncut, widescreen format. It was still a lot of hassle just to see a subpar film like Legend of Zu. Luckily, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of decent new films, the void was filled by the past.
When Celestial Entertainment announced they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu. A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.
In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.
Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.
Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.
Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.
The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.
Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?
Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.
Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?
Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.
His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.
As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is simply wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.
The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.
Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.
That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.
All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.
As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.
But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.
The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.
Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.
1955′s Quatermass clued the folks at Hammer in to the fact that maybe they had something on their hands with this horror and sci-fi business. They rushed out two more horror-scifi amalgamations, then in 1956 went to work on what was to be their first in a series of films that were, depending on who you are, either adaptations of classic works of British gothic horror, or remakes of old Universal Pictures horror films. The four biggest films in the Universal pantheon of horror were Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Mummy again with Karloff, and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. For their first crack at the legends, Hammer went with Curse of Frankenstein.
It was a bit of a gamble, what with the Karloff film being one of the great iconic films not just of horror, but of movies in general. Hammer was going to have to figure out a way to do something just as good but totally innovative, something that would at once hearken back to and be largely different from its legendary predecessor. To start things off they assigned studio director Terence Fisher to the project, then furnished him with well-known television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. A good start, but if the Karloff film had taught anyone anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of everyone’s attention. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall but relatively lean actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Lee already had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directs two seasoned but obscure character actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.
There were other hurdles to clear. Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels that Universal pumped out during the 1940s. But that would have been rude to bring up. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation. Hammer also decided that, rather than focus on the tragic tale of the Monster and “tampering in God’s domain,” they’d focus, like the book, on the title character and his obsession with research.
The gambles paid off in spades. Christopher Lee’s monster, while never the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real, like a ghoulish, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. And the focus on Frankenstein himself allows Peter Cushing to shine and give audiences a doctor who is as memorable as the creature was in the original film. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s own mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh, genius brain, some scientists have trouble with becoming obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome. Cushing’s Frankenstein is obsessed with research to the point that he really doesn’t care about the outcome. When he and his assistant Paul revive a dead dog, thereby making the single greatest achievement in the history of science, all Frankenstein is concerned with is taking the research to the next level. And when that next level is achieved, when he has created a man from the parts of dead men, all Frankenstein is interested in is yet more research, further pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing all day and night locked up in that lab.
Cushing’s portrayal is brilliant. He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, as was done by Colin Clive in the original, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they even exist. Everything he sees is either an aide to or obstacle in his research. He is utterly amoral, but never evil. Cushing strikes the proper blend of British reserve and over-the-top histrionics. A role of this nature requires one to go over the top at certain moments, but there are a lot of different grades of over the top. Lesser actors simply ham it up and look ridiculous. Cushing, however, pushes it to exactly where it needs to be. The story revolves around him, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying its weight.
He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Robert Urquhart is wonderful as Paul, first Frankenstein’s mentor and later his colleague, a man torn between a sense of decency and morality and a sense of curiosity about just what this brilliant madman can achieve. He suffers the car wreck syndrome, wanting to turn away but unable, too enticed by the doctor’s bizarre experiments just as he is repulsed by them. Hazel Court, who would go on to star in a handful of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that came from AIP and Roger Corman, is featured as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s hapless bride-to-be who finds herself loyal to the baron even as he ignores her utterly in favor of his research. And then there’s Christopher Lee, charged with turning in a world-class performance as the monster without uttering a line of dialogue beyond “Arrhhh!” Karloff was able to do it in 1931, and Lee repeats the feat by giving us a monster that is not nearly as gentle and innocent as the Karloff creature but still plenty pathetic and tragic.
His make-up and outfit are truly ghoulish and eerie. I remember seeing a picture of him long before I’d ever seen the movie, back when I was in the second or third grade and bought a set of monster movie books through that Troll Book Order thing that made us so happy at the end of every month. There were four books in the set: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and then a general one about space monsters. I don’t recall there being one about mummies, but I could be forgetting, though everything else about the books remains vivid. I was already a huge monster movie fan by that time and had devoured the old Universal movies and Godzilla, but these books opened up a world I’d never seen. I was particularly impressed by the woodcut print of Vlad Tepes with all those impaled guys around him – you know the one. It shows up in any and every book or documentary about Dracula. But the thing that really scared the heck out of me was the full-page picture of Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster, in that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. Freaked me out, and I still think it’s the most effective Frankenstein make-up there’s been. Man, I sure wish I still had those books. I remember they had black covers with a picture of the signature monster on them. There was this picture in the space monster volume of some guy in a weird black spacesuit kneeling over another guy in a black spacesuit who has been reduced to a skeleton. I’ve looked for years for that movie, but I have no recollection of the title, and that one photo isn’t much to go on.
The appearance of the creature is, of course, of thematic importance and always has been. Frankenstein goes on about how he will create man from scratch, perfect in every way, with the hands of an artist, the body of a hero, and the brain of a genius. And in every adaptation, this one included, the best he can do is a shambling flesh mound with homicidal tendencies. For Curse of Frankenstein it’s a symbol of the fact that the doctor doesn’t care about the ends so much as he does the means. All he wants to do is build and research. He’s created life, after all, and he’s blind to the eventual repercussions or its position as something of an abomination.
The attention to set dressing is wonderful as well. The film looks gorgeous and would set the high standard that would become one of the trademarks of Hammer films. If it’s not historically accurate down to the very last detail, it’s at least suitable convincing and complex. Frankenstein’s lab is, naturally, filled with all manner of scientific gadgetry, including a spinning turbine that makes that “mad scientist lair” whir, though I can’t help but think his experiment might have ended up better if he’d had a Jacob’s Ladder on hand. Fisher’s shot composition is wonderful as well. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through bleak, yellow-and-brown fall forests is still incredibly creepy, as the scene in which Paul takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking.
The script by Jimmy Sangster is wonderful, literary feeling without being slow, and with several nods to the Shelley source material, though like all adaptations of both that and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it plays it pretty loosely with what was in the book versus what goes up on screen. Curse of Frankenstein manages to be suitably bombastic with subtle touches, and because like subsequent Hammer Gothic horrors it takes itself so darn seriously, it never devolves into the arena of camp. This is, after all, a film based on a famous work of literature, and so it is lent the proper weight and respect. The film never lagged for me or got boring, and this is a testament to Cushing’s command of the screen and the sharpness of the dialogue and pacing. It’s a film that realized you don’t have to pack in a generic “thrill a minute” to keep audiences interested so long as what you are saying is reasonably intelligent and engrossing.
Curse of Frankenstein was a smash success. Audiences went wild for the film’s brazen mixture of Gothic horror, vivid Eastmancolor, and gore. It opened the door to several sequels and established Hammer as the preeminent name in horror the world over. It revived the entire concept of the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators and history makers as Mario Bava and Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price. It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to really use that theatrical, booming voice of his on more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic Universal monsters thought flogged to death during the ’30s and ’40s. And once that started, everything else at the studio was put on hold as they became the Hammer House of Horrors, so to speak. Their resurrection of Dracula was another smash. To complete their cycle, they would then turn once again to the team of Fisher, Cushing, and Lee and give the world The Mummy.
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