Silver Hawk (originally titled Masked Crusader) is loosely based on a series of popular pulp tales by Xiao Ping, published in Shanghai during the 40s and 50s. These told of the adventures of a masked heroine, Wong Ngang, sort of a female Chinese Robin Hood in superhero garb. The stories were previously adapted into Hong Kong movies and TV shows in the 60s and 70s, with the heroine portrayed by big stars of the time including Connie Chan, Angie Chiu and Petrina Fung Bo Bo. This movie’s genesis was rather more down to Earth: producer Thomas Chung was in China doing promotion on The Touch and noticed that Spider-Man was doing bravura business, and decided a superhero movie could make some serious money.
I have nobody to blame but myself. I mean, by now I should know that Hong Kong movies are not what they once were (i.e. good). And I should certainly know not to expect anything much from pop duo The Twins, a.k.a. Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung – I did, after all, suffer through their crummy vampire action mess The Twins Effect. So why in the Gay Blue Hell would I be interested in Protégé De La Rose Noire, their latest box office smash? Well, because one of my Hong Kong heroes, Donnie Yen, was the man behind the camera, and Donnie kicks ass. He was the action choreographer on The Twins Effect, and deserves the credit for making the mostly non-fighter cast look halfway competent. So maybe, just maybe, he could pull something out of the fire. Also of interest is that the movie features Donnie’s little sister Chris Yen, returning to the big screen for the first time since her debut in the little-known 1986 Yuen Woo-ping film Close Encounter With A Vampire. Still, I didn’t dare get my hopes too high, which is just as well because the movie still couldn’t live up to them.
Well I just… I mean… you know. Huh. How about that? I guess to have any hope of communicating effectively about a movie like Hero Dream we have to first summarize the concept of the Hong Kong Cat III film and, more importantly, the batshit insane, anything-goes attitude that drove Hong Kong cinema off the cliff and into pure pandemonium. I’m pretty sure this has come up before, so I’ll keep it brief. Or as brief as I ever keep anything. And after that, we can talk about how I racistly can’t tell the difference between Chin Siu-Ho and Chin Kar-Lok unless they are standing right next to each other, and even then I have problems unless one of them happens to have a bowl cut and a salmon colored blazer.
It’s popular in modern film criticism, both professional and amateur, to look back with a knowing snicker at what we perceive to be the profoundly obvious homoeroticism present in many — if not most — of the beefy, oiled up action films of the 1980s. It’s also popular to wonder whether all this musclebound gay subtext is actually there, or whether we, from our perch in the 21st century, simply inject it in ourselves. The answer of course, is probably yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t there, queer cinema would be stuck with a really boring filmography.
I ended up owning Naked Fist through my desire to beat Teleport City head honcho Keith in our race to both own as many nude kickboxing movies as possible. I’m not doing too well in this race mind you; my ineptitude at competitiveness has never been more obvious than when, as soon as I got a copy of Naked Fist, I immediately ripped it and sent it to Keith. This despite knowing he has at least 3 nude kickboxing movies I don’t own. I guess my only hope now is that he doesn’t have TNT Jackson, Duel to the Death, Golden Ninja Warrior or any of those Alexander Lo Rei/Godfrey Ho flicks where Alice Tseng fights ninjas while taking a bath. I don’t hold out much hope though; this is Keith we’re talking about. Ninjas in the bath are his bread and butter.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
What is it about a sexy woman in a skull mask? Is it that her nubile body makes one pine for his lost youth while her death’s head visage mockingly reminds him of his encroaching mortality? Probably.
Neraka Lembah Tengkorak is based on a series of popular Indonesian novels credited to author Bastian Tito, all of which focus on the exploits of Wiro Sablang, a sort of wuxia-style wandering hero gifted with a wide variety of supernatural powers. Seven films in all were based on the series, all starring actor Tonny Hidayat as Wiro, and the popularity of the books would later also translate into a successful TV series, albeit one with a different actor in the lead.
Regular readers to this site may have noticed my curious affection for the DTV martial arts flick. Thus it would be churlish of me to ignore Bloodmoon, a 1997 example of the genre, seeing as it features not one but TWO of my fellow Brits. A handful of Britkickers have made names for themselves as nasty roundeye bad guy types in Hong Kong martial arts films; the likes of Mark Haughton, Sophia Crawford and Jude Poyer have all spent time getting beaten on by Asian stars du jour. Probably the most successful of these is one Gary Daniels, a remarkable martial artist who has a Judge Dredd-style square jaw, the physique of Schwarzenegger and amazing kung fu/karate/kickboxing skills, coupled with the acting ability of a wooden badger. Daniels has appeared in some 30-odd films, but is still best known as the imposing ‘Pony tail fighter’ in Wong Jing’s lame Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.
Joining Gary in Bloodmoon is fellow Brit Darren Shahlavi, another action type who came to video by way of Hong Kong. He has a spectacular fight at the end of arguably the last of the New Wave of period martial arts films, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi II. Also appearing is American martial artist Chuck Jeffreys, who among his other acting and stunt credits was fight choreographer on Spider-Man (the 2002 one, not the woeful old TV show). Anyway, that’s far too much trivia on fifth-banana action stars for anyone, so on with the review of Bloodmoon.
Our story opens on the nighttime New York skyline with some reassuringly bad superimposed-moon special effects — so bad in fact that they make the Evil Dead ones look downright polished. We move to a boxing gym where a badass fighter named Eddie Cunningham (Hakim Alston) is training. A banner proclaims the gym as “Home of the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World.” Pretty soon the gym is empty and the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World is left to lock up, standard practice for boxing CHAMPIONS I assume. Suddenly a figure appears, who intones, “there is blood on the moon” (cut to shot of fake window with big red circle painted on it). This is our villain (Shahlavi), and he cuts an imposing figure; black leather trousers, lined opera cape, metal-tipped engineer boots, Gene Simmons hairdo and a curious mask which sits somewhere between a yin-yang symbol and one of Elton John’s more outlandish eyewear choices. After a reasonably spectacular fight the boxing CHAMPION is killed by our villain’s Iron Finger technique.
Next we see a figure on a high-powered motorcycle zooming around some of Manhattan’s more memorable landmarks, in case we’d forgotten we were in New York. Apparently to get to a seedy Harlem gym you have to go via the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and Columbus Circle, stopping on Mulberry Street for some clams at Sal Anthony’s. Although I’ve visited “la grande pomme” three times admittedly I’ve never ridden a motorbike there, so maybe this is the best way. The figure pulls up outside the boxing gym, doing a little spinning jump kick to amuse the police officers guarding the entrance. This is Detective Chuck Baker (Jeffreys) and he is a droll fellow. So droll in fact that he does a few conjuring tricks over the bloody corpse of the boxing CHAMPION. In a line of dialogue so obvious it could have come from Ed Wood’s pen, he looks down at the corpse and says, “Boys and girls, it looks like we got ourselves a homicide.” No clue is too complex for this detective it seems.
On his return to the police station Chief Hutchins chews him out. A shockingly bad Frank Gorshin plays Hutchins, in fact I haven’t seen scenery-chewing on this scale since, um… Frank Gorshin in that episode of Buck Rogers with the Legion Of Death. Hutchins is upset because the killer is taunting him with emails featuring the words “Blood on the moon”. Clearly his expertise with basic email and cheap Photoshop effects means the police consider him to be a computer genius.Meanwhile in the back room of a bar, a Tough Man CHAMPION named Dutch (played by Mr. PPV, The Whole F’n Show, Mr. Monday Night himself Rob Van Dam) is attempting to copulate with a female on top of a pinball machine. Dutch is a bit of a sh*t, we know this because he… well, he looks like one, and is played by Rob Van Dam. Oh, and he calls the girl a ‘b*tch’. Not surprisingly (and because there hasn’t been a fight for about five minutes) the killer arrives and picks a fight with Dutch, using his nifty Iron Finger strike again (I’m not kidding, he actually has two iron fingers). That’s two CHAMPIONS dead then, I wonder if the cops will notice. Sadly the police aren’t going to make this staggering revelation for another hour or so, but bear with them as there’s plenty of fun to be had before then.
Killing Rob Van Dam just isn’t on, so the Chief calls in retired cop Ken O’Hara (Daniels). Now, forgive me if your name happens to be Ken and/or O’Hara but that particular nomenclature just doesn’t have the ring of a true action hero name. Usually he would have been called Steve Ninja or Barry Fist or something, but KEN… I kept wanting to refer to him as Stig O’Hara, the famous lead guitarist of The Rutles. Anyhow Stig, I mean Ken, is introduced to us playing on the beach with his young daughter. I’m not familiar with Manhattan having only visited there a few times (I may have mentioned it in passing), but I can’t recall any beaches. Anyway I digress once again. Some nasty Manhattan beach Hell’s Angels arrive and start to cause a ruckus. Ken, man of peace that he is attempts to smooth things over, until the foolish biker thugs decide to rough up his eight year old. Boo, meanies. This is all it takes for Ken to leap, punch and spinning jump kick into action. He’s still a man of peace at heart of course, as he says, “I didn’t want to fight them; I didn’t have a choice.”
Ken is a Mind Hunter, a super-smart serial killer profiler who quit the job when he got ‘too close’ to the mind of a killer he was tracking and incidentally was horribly injured. Yes folks, we now have a kung fu cop action buddy movie Manhunter ripoff. Chuck arrives at Ken’s house to find his (estranged, naturally) wife waiting to collect their daughter. Seems that all the profiling got in the way of his marriage too. Chuck tries to convince Ken to return, but Ken refuses. “I don’t do this anymore!” he cries, the acting very nearly detectable. Next time we see Ken he is walking around his house at night. There is a thunderstorm outside, mournful soft rock on the soundtrack and angst in the air. He gazes at a photo of an old Japanese guy with a horribly fake moustache before he slips into a monochrome flashback of his torture at the hands of a psycho. “Not again!” screams Ken, in slow motion naturally.
AT THAT VERY MOMENT, the Japanese guy with the fake moustache (Ken Kensei) is meditating in his dojo. He is Master Takaido, and we assume he is a CHAMPION at something. Bad facial hair possibly. Our villain enters and sets up a nifty live video camera-modem link before Master Takaido notices him and declares his spirit unclean. There then ensues a neat Katana fight that is being beamed live by computer to police HQ. Chuck realises that they are seeing the killer at work but is too late to save the Master. Good thing too because Chuck and Ken are still at the ‘mutual dislike’ stage. They won’t reach ‘grudging respect’, let alone ‘admiration and understanding’ for a good half-hour. Of course the two are now thrown together since Master Takaido is Ken’s former Sensei, but not before they accidentally bump into each other at the darkened crime scene and duke it out for a bit.
At the crime scene they also run into Takaido’s adopted American teenage daughter Kelly (Brandie Rocci), who is probably best described as ‘spunky’. She wants to be involved with the investigation, adding a new annoying wrinkle to the plot. Chuck and Ken shake her off long enough for them and their visible boom mike to see sleazy computer hacker Justice (Jeff Pillars), who can figure out the complicated email trickery. Naturally he is a repulsive fat weasel who downloads porn and pees in a thermos. They get a location on the killer, but it’s all a big trick and they end up surrounded by drug dealers. Of course they beat the crap out of them but there’s no masked killer to be found.
Meeting Kelly in the obligatory strip club, the petite blonde takes out a gang of unruly guys who are hitting on her. Ken neglects to help, claiming she is “a former national CHAMPION”. Good job the killer wasn’t there to overhear that, eh? Oh, hang on…who’s that guy in the Gene Simmons wig? Naturally the killer turns up at Kelly’s place shortly thereafter, and a fight ensues. A word on this. I have no problem with guys in wigs doubling women in fight scenes, even when the woman in question is wearing panties and a bathrobe. However if this is a road you choose to go down, it’s not a good idea to let said male stunt double do backflips in which his pink-cotton clad hairy nutsack is clearly visible.
After a short interlude while Ken saves his marriage by going on some fairground rides, our heroes find another dead guy, this time with the word “CHAMP” written next to the body in blood. This actually gives the game away to our doofus cops. “It’s been here all along!” says Ken. No shit, Sherlock. It seems that Master Takaido once held a tournament called the Masters’ Challenge, in which different martial arts champions fought each other. Most of them have been victims, except for two — have a guess if you think our guys pick the wrong one. Meanwhile the real killer lures Kelly to his house and kills her.
By the time Chuck and Ken find Kelly, the killer has kidnapped Ken’s newly reconciled wife and kid. He straps them to a bomb and demands Ken face him in Mortal Kombat…sorry, wrong movie. Naturally it only remains for Ken, Chuck, and the killer to face of in an abandoned factory, the discerning bad movie’s location of choice. If you think Ken kills the bad guy and saves his family…you’d be wrong actually. This movie has a very odd cop-out ending which makes very little sense.
Apart from all that, how is the movie? Well, I daresay there’s some acting in here somewhere but I’m buggered if I can find it. Gary Daniels has spent a long career saying very American-sounding lines in an English accent, something that never works very well. Jeffreys is OK, Rocci is irritating, and Shahlavi has an evil laugh that he must have borrowed from an 80s cartoon. Frank Gorshin deserved an award of some kind for his performance, which is hammier than the pork products stand at a pig auction. Still, all of them are better than the daytime TV rejects playing Ken’s wife and daughter.
Still, this is a kung fu movie so who cares about acting? How does he movie fare to those who like extra chop with their socky? Well, fortunately it does quite well. Director/choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung worked on such Hong Kong fare as In The Line Of Duty 3, To Be Number One, and Satin Steel, and he puts together some nice action scenes. Luckily he has three very talented martial artists to perform them, with a decent cast of support victims, who lay just enough smack down before dying horribly. There are even some Crouching Tiger-style wire stunts, including at least two where the wire isn’t clearly visible.
My main criticism of the film is that it looks cheap – Ng See Yuen and Seasonal films, the folks behind seminal classics like Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and Secret Rivals produced it. The problem here is the same one that has dogged other Seasonal American productions; you get a lot more bang for your buck in HK than in the USA. The amazing computer graphics look like the sort of thing I could have done on my previous PC with the software that came free with my old printer. A shame, because with a bit more attention to detail this could have been a bargain-basement classic.
As it is the best thing to do is fast-forward to the fight scenes and try not to laugh at the killer’s costume. Or he’ll kick your ass, CHAMP.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Frank Gorshin, Darren Shahlavi, Nina Repeta, Leigh Jones, Jeffrey Pillars, Brandie Rocci, Keith Vitali, Joe Hess, Rob Van Dam, Jen Sung Outerbridge, Michael Depasquale Jr., Ken Kensei, Joe Lewis, Rebecca Rogers, Hakim Alston | Screenplay: Keith W. Strandberg | Director: Kuang Hsiung | Cinematography: Derek Wan | Music: Richard Yuen | Producer: Ng See-Yuen, Keith W. Strandberg
Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.
And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?
In retrospect, I cant believe it didn’t happen more frequently. I mean, combining the American obsession with ‘Nam movies with the American obsession with ninja movies — that just seems like common sense. I’m surprised Cannon, who were kings of both genres, didn’t just spontaneously spawn a dozen movies about ninjas saving POWs without even having to commission the production of them. As far as I know, ninja and “rescue the ‘Nam POW” movies just appeared magically overnight in Golan and Globus’ office, created presumably by a team of elves who had little else to do ever since they helped make that cobbler rich. At the very least, you’d think Godfrey Ho would have gotten in on the action.
Surprisingly, though, there were very few movies that thought to take the proverbial American ninja and plop him down in the middle of a ‘Nam POW movie. Godfrey Ho was too busy splicing ninjas into movies where guys with mustaches fought other guys with mustaches in the jungles of The Philippines, but this was always over the drug trade. So the potentially ripe field of movies about ninjas rescuing POWs from the clutches of the VC remains sadly under-exploited.
However, if you have to have a sole example of the genre, Ultimax Force is as good as you’re probably going to get. It has pretty much everything a “ninjas meets Rambo” movie needs. The plot is pretty bare: four ‘Nam vets who also happen to be ninjas are asked by their old master to rescue one of their ninja brothers, languishing still in a VC prison camp. With that groundwork laid, you get what you need from such a film. There’s a bar room brawl, a cute Vietnamese woman played by a Chinese woman who assists the heroes, a lot of exploding huts, guys falling out of guard towers, sadistic prison commandants, dudes doing the exaggerated “I’m getting peppered with machine gun bullets” dance, and lots of walking or boating through the jungles. Plus the heroes, when they aren’t dressed as ninjas, wear the requisite 80s American adventure wear: acid washed jeans cuffed tight around the ankle, white sneakers, loose fitting checkered shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and of course, headbands. They look like their “rescue mission” checklist included “sharpen ninja swords, to some push ups, stop by Chess King.”
Aside fromt he requisite notes, Ultimax Force does a couple things a little different from your standard Namsploitation movie — apart from, you know, ninjas. Chief among these is the fact that the rescue mission is a dismal failure. Once the prison commander gets wind of a bunch of American ninjas heading his way to liberate the POWs, he just guns down all the prisoners, including the ninjas’ brother. There you go. Problem solved, though it lacks the panache of some of the more flamboyant sadistic prison commanders, who would keep the prisoners alive but do something like crucify them or put them in those half-submerged cages full of leeches. So points off for style, but I guess you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the more mundane “I’ll just shoot ‘em” approach. James Bond is lucky he never ran into this guy. There’s also no talk of government conspiracies or corrupt American businessmen and officers colluding to foil the rescue mission.
Ultimax Force is a pretty low budget but enjoyable trash war film. It delivers on the action and exploding huts and doesn’t bother with much else. While Italian ‘Nam movies are often full of ripe, ridiculous dialogue, Ultimax Force (pretty sure it was Filipino) offers almost nothing in the way of cornball lines. It sticks mostly to gratuitous name calling and those tortured insults that are too convoluted to have come from the mind of a native speaker of English. And the plot is as thin as the dialogue. This isn’t a movie that has a lot to say. Like the ultimax force itself, this movie has a job and gets it done as quickly as possible. It’s only about 80-something minutes long, and most of that time is spent on the point: ninjas mowing down VC. I appreciate that they keep this one lean and mean, especially after more meandering, twisty movies like The Last Hunter.
The actors here have worked hard to be completely emotionless, even when they’re supposed to be screaming vengeful, “I’ll get you, you fucker!” proclamations. One of ninjas harbors considerable racist rage against the Vietnamese, but this is never explored as anything more than an excuse for him to get to say things like “slant-eyed mother fucker.” A couple of the other ninja are whiny “dude, let’s just go home and forget this” sort of guys, which while understandable, doesn’t make them particularly compelling adventure heroes. When people fire machine guns, they just make half-hearted yellface and wave their machine guns around wildly, somehow managing to hit people despite their technique looking similar to just flailing a garden hose around. And also, for some reason, the machine guns make pew-pew-pew laser noises. Heroes also die for no reason other than they do incredibly stupid stunts for no reason. Case in point — one guy swan dives off a bamboo platform into the waiting throngs of well-armed VC, who shoot him all to hell before he finally reveals he was also holding a grenade that kills a couple guys. Why wouldn’t you just throw those grenades from cover? Why the swan dive?
Oh, because you’re a fucking ‘Nam vet ninja.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: The Philippines | Starring: Vivian Cheung, Brad Collins, Sauro Cotoco, Vincent Giffin, Eric Hahn, Debbie Henson, Jeremy Ladd, Audrey Miller, Arnold Nicholas, Ronnie Patterson, Patrick Scott, Henry Strzalkowski, Ray Uhen | Screenplay: Joe Mari Avellana | Director: Willy Milan | Cinematography: Joe Tutanes | Music: Willie Cruz
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000′s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang