To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
It’s time to start paying attention to martial arts movies again. We’re not quite out of the desert through which we’ve been wandering, but there’s definitely an oasis on the horizon. Long years of Hong Kong turning its back on the genre, or making movies so bad that you wish it’d turned its back, might finally be over. The new school that Hong Kong forgot to train to take over when guys like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung got too old seems to finally be graduating, thanks largely to the potentially vast pool of talent in mainland China being opened to fim makers who want a little more authenticity in their action stars. It was slow going. For years after the handover of Hong Kong by the Brits back to China, the behemoth and the city-state were like two people on an awkward first date, trying to figure one another out, making stuttering attempts at small talk. Then came Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which mixed up Chinese and Hong Kong casts and crews and took over the world. Slowly, the two partners got more and more comfortable with each other. And by 2008 or so, they were ready to consummate the union, so to speak.
Following the trail blazed by Yimou, we started getting a slew of impressive looking, giant-scale historical epics, some with more martial arts than others. Having limped along for so many years with nothing at their disposal but pop stars more interested in sculpting their hair and male model abs than in learning the craft of making an action film, Hong Kong film makers suddenly had the best and brightest of China at their disposal, and the mainland Chinese seemed absolutely raring to prove themselves to disillusioned fans. Plus, having weathered the pop idol decade, there was now a new generation of directors who were hungry for the sort of slam-bang kungfu films with which they’d grown up in the 70s and 80s. They wanted new faces who wanted to be martial arts stars, and they wanted to bring back the old guard to serve as mentors. And all of a sudden, we were getting movies like Little Big Soldier and Gallants and 14 Blades. Like I said, we’re only just now starting to rebuild, but the new foundation looks more promising than anything we’ve seen in years. I never felt like I needed to learn the difference between Stephen Fung, or Edison Chan, or any of the other goofy young things that devoured most of the last decade. Now we’ve got a whole new batch of names to learn, though, and some of them are worth learning.
First and foremost, learn the name Jiang Lu-Xia.
One of the things I remember most fondly from the 80s and early 90s are the fighting femmes who took over the screen. Names like Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan, Cynthia Rothrock — the movies they starred in during those years may not have always been the best written or best acted, but they damn sure delivered the action. Insane stunts, brutal fights, blazing energy — even the worst of them had enough over the top action to make it worth suffering through the missteps. And if the fightin’ lads suffered during the first decade of the 2000s, the fightin’ ladies all but vanished. The old school “girls with guns” class retired, or they moved on to more upscale prestige projects, or they found their genre was no longer favored by film goers and so sought work in The Philippines and other places where they were still a few years behind what was hip in Hong Kong.
As for us fans of the genre, we had nowhere to go. Cynthia Rothrock came back to the United States, but her movies here were mostly terrible. Hong Kong couldn’t come up with anything better than CGI’ing around Charlene Choi and Maggie Q. There was no action actress who instilled genuine fear in the viewer the way Sonny Chiba-trained Yukari Oshima used to be able to do. There was no one with the innocent-but-deadly charisma of Moon Lee. And there certainly wasn’t another Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, when directors and production companies decided to start making martial arts actioners again, they didn’t settle on the crop of cute pop idols and models that were slinking around the joint. If no actress in Hong Kong was going to put herself through what it took to really become an action star, then they’d just go calling elsewhere. That’s when China’s Jiang Lu-Xia picked up the phone.
If you want to draw comparisons to past greats, Jiang is less “the next Michelle Yeoh” and more “the next Jet Li,” albeit with a dash of Yukari Oshima thrown in. Like Li, Jiang is a wushu superstar from the mainland, and her prowess at martial arts turned her into a one-woman self-defense industry. She started training in martial arts at the age of seven, in Mongolia, and eventually pursued training at various spots in China. Before breaking into film, she was kicking ass in a host of tournaments, not to mention working as a referee, starring in self-defense instructional videos and television shows, appearing on a competition-based reality series called The Disciple, and becoming an internet sensation when she started uploading videos of herself under the name “Mao Er Bao Bei.”
While she was busy honing her skills and uploading videos, veteran Hong Kong action film stuntman, supporting actor, and choreographer Xiong Xin-xin (you know him as Clubfoot from the Once Upon a Time in China series, and he popped up more recently in Bad Blood and the unwatchable Circadian Rhythm) was trying to get a new project off the ground, one that would continue the trend of Hong Kong martial arts films getting back to the spirit of the 1980s, when they ruled the action universe. It would also be Xiong’s first time as director. Xiong soon had Jiang brought to his attention, and like many, he saw her potential as a major new martial arts movie star. Unfortunately, those many people didn’t include many studio execs, who were hesitant to put their faith in this supposed kungfu film revival unless the movie was a period piece featuring Andy Lau in a fake beard. Xiong is well-known and respected, but he’d never directed before, and this chick from…where was it? China? Mongolia??? Why the hell would anyone greenlight a movie like that?
Luckily, just as Andy Lau showed faith in a goofy little idea that became Gallants, and was willing to fund the movie when no one else would, Xiong eventually found backers among friends and the Hong Kong entertainment old guard, including the not-so-secretly most powerful man in the world, pudgy little comedy dwarf Eric Tsang. Seriously, have you ever read about him? That dude could have you killed if he wanted to. Anyway, Jiang Lu-xia threw herself into the role, emotionally and physically, with a gusto and willingness to injure herself that we haven’t seen from Hong Kong since the apparent stuntman death wish they had in the 1980s moved to Thailand. Her skill and enthusiasm for the role turns what is an otherwise clunky film into a fairly enjoyable experience, one that focuses almost entirely on watching Jiang Lu-xia beat the shit out of people in a series of increasingly improbable set-ups.
Jiang plays Nie Yi-yi, a teacher at her family’s martial arts academy. When a freak accident causes the death of her father, she sort of drops out of life until an old friend, Chung Tin (Bio Zombie‘s Sam Lee) runs into her and convinces her to take a job as a bodyguard, where she will be able to beat people up while wearing a business suit. Shortly after taking the job, however, Yi-yi is beset by more problems, as her charge and his family is targeted by a seemingly endless stream of goons. Although Yi-yi beats the crap out of most of them, they still succeed with the kidnapping. Yi-yi and Chung Tin launch a mission to get their boss back, but the deeper in they go, the more it seems like something else entirely is going on.
Yi-yi eventually notices that the the various fights she’s having as part of her mission are being video taped, and before too long, she gets the right people to beat the information out of: none of this is about her boss. It’s about her, and one of the favorites of low-budget fight films: a ring of jaded rich people who enjoy watching and betting on life-or-death street fights. They’ve been secretly video taping all of Yi-yi’s fights and broadcasting them on the Web for gamblers — funny, I guess, given that Jiang herself became a star thanks to using the Web to show off her fighting skills. Obviously, the people using her for her ass kicking skills need to have their asses kicked.
Coweb is, like a number of recent low-budget fight films, a throwback to the 80s and early 90s in pretty much every sense — and that includes the daft writing. But like the movies that are its heritage, Coweb seeks to make up for its narrative shortcomings by making sure we never have much time to dwell on them before all is forgiven by watching Jiang Lu-xia in action once again. Xiong Xin-xin is shaky in his first outing as a full-on director, and some of the film’s action sequences feel a bit awkward, like everyone is still feeling things out. Even when he’s restricted simply to being an action director, Xiong can turn in somewhat uneven work, and that’s once again the case here. But one need not fear, because Jiang Lu-xia comes to the game with such intensity and a willingness to do pretty much anything that’s asked of her that her fight film charisma carries the day. Even in a somewhat half-assed film like Coweb, it’s impossible for me not to love watching Jiang in action — and while some of Xiong’s choreography is off the mark, he also gives us more than enough of it to ensure that he has as many hits as he has misses.
Jiang’s throw-downs against henchmen in a kitchen is fun. While the set-up of her fight in a disco’s shallow pool of water is completely convoluted and absurd, the end result is Jiang fighting a chick in a short dress in a pool of water. Then she fights a dude with ill-advised hair, has some fun on that old Hong Kong action movie friend (bamboo scaffolding), and takes on some kungfu breakdancers before she works up to the main challenge: Kane Kosugi! Like I said, the fight choreography isn’t perfect, but I don’t ask for perfection. I thought it was all pretty entertaining. If Xiong is a bit shaky as director, Jiang looks like she’s been doing this her whole life. Oh wait — basically, she has, hasn’t she? Anyway, she’s the most obvious recent example of the massive gulf between what Hong Kong was doing for the past decade plus — relying on camera tricks, CGI, and pop starlets — and what I hope they start doing instead –which is relying on women who walk the walk.
Her supporting cast is all right, but frankly, we’re here to watch Jiang Lu-xia. Kane Kosugi is one of those actors who deserves better than he gets. He’s not all that impressive a thespian, but within his limits he’s effective — and he, like Jiang Lu-xia, can walk the walk. The man basically finished Ninja Warrior! that he didn’t get credit for beating the course is a matter of a couple fractions of a second, which I thing should be negated by the fact that he did the whole thing in the rain. The prospect of finally getting to watch him in an action movie with a real opponent — instead of being in awkward scenes with stars who don’t have any talent for martial arts — had me pretty excited. Xiong Xin-xin must have felt the same way, because he gives the two of them a good twelve or so minutes to beat on each other. No gimmicks, no fancy directing — just two very, very good martial arts actors doing what they do best. It’s not Jackie Chan versus Benny Urquidez in Dragons Forever, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Coweb ends up being a lot of great raw material that never fully coalesces into a great film, but for those who are accustomed to rolling with the sloppy writing we forgave in the old girls with guns movies, there’s nothing about Coweb‘s sundry sloppy mistakes and silly plot that will prove to be an impediment to enjoying the movie. Jiang Lu-xia shines, and watching her has made me more excited about the future of martial arts films than anyone in a long time. She probably deserves a better director and choreographer in the future, but the inexperience of both her and Xiong Xin-xin gives this movie a rough around the edges underdog appeal. I seem to have enjoyed Coweb a heck of a lot more than many other people, even among those whose opinions on film I take with some degree of seriousness. But whatever the case, I just found it really easy to roll with. It felt like it was 1992 all over again, with a bunch of us huddled around my shitty little television watching Iron Angels or Righting Wrongs for the first time. I had a big, dumb smile on my face after all was said and done. There’s very little pretense about the type of movie this is, and as much as I love the current trend of humongous overblown epics and haunted warlords in medieval China, I’m also a huge fan of lean, no nonsense ass kickers. On that level, Coweb more than satisfied me.
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jiang Lu-Xia, Sam Lee Chan-Sam, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Kane Kosugi, Wanja Gotz, Chan Kwok-Bong, Mike Moller, Peggy Tseng Pei-Yu, Wai Cha Go Si, Ho Chung-Lam, Geung Kam-Kui | Screenplay: Sunny Chan Wing-Sun | Director: Xiong Xin-Xin | Cinematography: Parkie Chan Chor-Keung | Music: Mak Jan-Hung | Producer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho, Eddie Chan Shu-Chi | Original Title: Por Mong
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date.
Director Denis Law seems committed to returning the Hong Kong martial arts movie to the glory days of when they had awesome stunt and fight choreography and were terrible in just every other way, but we forgave them because of the action scenes (or did you watch Iron Angels for the writing?). Bad Blood is the perfect example of Law’s approach to film making. The story is the sort of ridiculous, convoluted, half-assed sort of affair you’d expect from an early 90s actioner. It also stars Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, his wardrobe is subdued. My feeling is that if you are going to cast Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, then he should be sporting the insane sort of crap that he was wearing in Looking for Mr. Perfect.
For my money, this is where the wheels started to come off the Jackie Chan cart. Sure, we had already written off his American career after The Tuxedo (though I personally love Shanghai Knights and think Forbidden Kingdom is bland and stupid but largely inoffensive), but this is where the Hong Kong movies that were our refuge started to show signs of rot as well. I was with him through the 1990s, even when he was working with Stanley Tong, a director who has an impressive ability to make even the most talented action star seem dull and uninspiring. I was even with Jackie through the first part of the new millennium, and while some people didn’t care for output like Who Am I and Accidental Spy, I really enjoyed them.
Gallants is the sort of movie that seems custom made for lapsing into bouts of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. For me, and maybe this only makes sense in my own head (where it also makes sense to advance Manos: The Hands of Fate as a work of profound importance), you can look at and even celebrate the past without becoming nostalgic. Nostalgia is a particular way of looking at the past, one resigned to belief that the past is as good as it ever was, and it’ll never be that good again. I just can’t reconcile myself with that degree of fatalism, though the older one gets the more often one struggles with that sort of pessimism — especially when one turns on the FM radio and hears that dreadful racket the kids these days refer to as music. What’s wrong, old man??? Justin Beiber too bold for ya? Go back to the nursing home and listen to your safe old Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun albums, grampa!
I’m not exactly old, but I’m getting older. Old enough to occasionally catch myself grappling with the self-indulgent ennui nostalgia breeds. At such times, before I find myself deep my cups and moaning about the old days, I have to remind myself of two important things. First, that the majority of what I consider to be the most enjoyable and incredible experiences of my life have come in the last dozen years, not the two dozen before it. Second, I have to remember that the past was never as suave, cool, rosy, and perfect as we tend to remember during fits of nostalgia. There is a way to embrace the past, celebrate it, even rekindle parts of it, without relegating yourself to it. Like most people, my life is full of regrets, bad calls, stupid moves, missed opportunities, and things I would have done differently. But seriously, is my life today better served by making ornate plans for what I’d do if I had a chance to travel back in time and change things, or by learning from past mistakes, appreciating past victories, accepting my lessons learned, and doing something with the present?
It can be a fine line, and lord knows I cross it from time to time, but I do my best to pull back once I realize I’m getting all pissy about some golden era that never actually happened the way I remember it. Gallants is very much a cinematic adaptation of this philosophy and struggle. It’s a film built around a cast whose best days ended over a quarter century ago, but who also represent a time when we all thought martial arts films were a whole lot cooler than the ones they’re making these days. Rather than turning into an exercise in nostalgia for or imitation of old movies, however, Gallants handles itself as a celebration, a rediscovery, and a re-invigoration, handing its deceptively complex central themes with a deft hand. It’s a film that looks to the past without pandering to it or being trapped by it, resulting in a movie that is uplifting and bittersweet, and ultimately, a refreshingly honest meditation on growing old, feeling obsolete, and rediscovering your spirit and a place in the modern world.
But lest you think this movie is stuffed full of navel-gazing and winsome piano music, let me assure you that whatever themes it contains are delivered by a gang of energetic old guys cracking jokes and beating the unholy stuffing out of one another.
Said old farts are a veritable who’s who of 70s kungfu bad-asses. Under-appreciated even in his day Shaw Brothers workhorse Chen Kuan-tai plays Dragon, and former Bruce Lee clone Bruce Leung Siu-lung plays Tiger, two former kungfu heavyweights who have wasted away the last thirty years watching over their comatose old master, Law (Teddy Robin). As a result, their lives have become unfulfilled and disappointing. The old kungfu school has become a teahouse (a nod to the old Shaw Bros film that made Chen Kuan-tai a star). Tiger and Dragon have never married, never gotten out of their small village, and they spend their days trapped between regret and loyalty to their old master. Keeping vigil with them is the local doctor, Fun (Siu Yam-yam, female bad-ass from such films as Big Bad Sis, To Kill a Jaguar, and Chinatown Kid), who at least has moved on with her life enough to become a doctor. Also staying with the men is a young woman (J. J. Jia Xiao-Chen) whose mother was once saved by the duo in an incident that left Dragon with a permanently crippled arm and Tiger with a permanently bum leg. She feels protective of them, even if they think they’re protecting her, and hopes that she can repay them for saving her mother by somehow jump-starting their lives.
A dispute over the lease for the teahouse with the local heavies commanded by former Deadly Venom and Shaw Bros. muscleman Lo Meng causes a real estate company to send in a mediator: hapless loser Cheung (Wong Yau-nam). Although much younger than Tiger and Dragon, Cheung seems to have given up on life in much the same way, reconciling himself with his loser present while he dwells on memories of the past, when he was a pre-teen kungfu tournament star. Although Cheung and his company are technically on the side of the heavies, Cheung identifies more with the downtrodden old men, especially when Tiger leaps into a kungfu fury to save the young idiot from a beating at the hands of the very people Cheung is there to assist in business. Tiger and Dragon don’t want Cheung around, since he keeps bringing trouble to the teahouse and since he’s ostensibly working for the people trying to put them out of business.
Cheung’s bad luck isn’t at an end, though. He soon discovers that one of the junior bosses in the thug army is a guy named Mang (American born rapper “M.C.” Jin Auyeung), who used to be the very kid Cheung bullied and abused mercilessly when they were kids. Mang, needless to say, regards Cheung with open hostility and is keen on making up for a decade plus of pent up frustration and shame. Dragon is ready to give up the fight, seeing no way they can win. Tiger is irritated that they haven’t fought enough. Of course, Mang still expects Cheung to do the job for which he’s in town, which means Cheung finds himself in the even more precarious situation of being in the middle of physical violence and vandalism. And then an accident awakens Master Law from his thirty year coma, and all hell and hilarity breaks lose.
The central movie is, I think, a reflection of what I was rambling about earlier, something that might have the appearance of nostalgia but is really a reaction against nostalgia. Tiger, Dragon, and Cheung are all men who live in the past, pining for the days when they were fierce and respected — even though those days were likely never quite as glorious as they remember them to be. When the history of Master Law, Dragon, and Tiger is revealed, it’s communicated by the film through bold, heroic looking animation, and when Cheung reflects on his past, he remembers himself as a champion and kungfu star rather than as a bully. So obsessed are they with what they used to be that they’ve let their present lives become total shambles, giving up and accepting that their best days are long gone. It’ snot until the three despondent men meet, and then are subjected to the delirious vigor of the delusional Master Law once he is revived, that the trio begins to understand that the present sucks so bad mostly because they’ve put all their efforts into thinking about how much better the past was.
The film doesn’t let itself become what it criticizes, though. It is rejecting the modern style kungfu film, with all its CGI trickery and pouting teen idols more concerned with hairstyles than with learning the craft of making a good kungfu movie, but it’s not retreating into the past, or kicking the dirt and being all glum. Instead, it’s forging ahead with gusto to be what it’s saying we should strive to become. Gallants does have more than a whiff of dusting off the old guard to show the young whippersnappers how to do the job properly, but what’s going on here is more complex than just aping the past. The martial arts style son display, for example, are a mixture of multiple approaches that have been popular over the years. You get intricate Shaw Bros. style duels (watching Chen Kuan-tai and Lo Meng lock up is a wonderful treat). You get high-speed, frenetically filmed fights in the style of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (the same style that put guys like Lo Meng and Chen Kuan-tai out of business at the end of the 1970s). there’s some small irony, I suppose, in the fact that this style of fighting and filming a fight is handled largely by Bruce Leung — and yes, if you were wondering if they would let him break out the old Jeet Kun Do stances as well, you need not fear. The philosophy seems to be that none of these approaches to film fighting is necessarily better than the other. What’s important, what makes a martial arts movie so special, is the insane commitment and hard work that goes into creating a good fight scene. What each of these styles has in common is that they’re being performed by seasoned pros busting their ass, giving their all, and really taking pride in the artistry of what they’re doing. You can’t get that from an actor who is just being popped around a green screen set by CGI.
Perhaps the most evident expression of this comes when Master law and his rag tag band of followers limp, stagger, and swagger into a gym owned by Master Pong (played by another familiar veteran of the old school game, Michael Chan Wai-man, who slight build now gives off a serious Peter Cushing vibe). Pong’s gym is hosting a largely self-promotional tournament, and the school itself is populated almost entirely by supermodels and posturing gangsters doing pitiful kungfu wrapped up in a slick package. It’s impossible not to see them as a reflection of Hong Kong’s idea of what made an action star in the first decade of the 2000s.
The film’s commitment to being more complex that you expect of such a film continues to manifest itself in the forms of Master Pong and his one real pupil, Pon (Li Hai-to, who like most of the young cast in this film, has very little experience before appearing in Gallants). Although far more financially successful than Tiger or Dragon, Pong and Pon have also been cruising along with no real motivation or spirit — the elder resigned to being the figurehead for a sham martial arts gym, the younger resigned to being the only real martial artist in a gym full of egotistical, talentless gangsters and fashion models. Among the bad guys, only Pong seems to remember Master Law and hold any respect for him or his two pupils, When Law awakens and starts prowling around looking for challenges and hitting on the supermodels in Pong’s gym, Pong and Pon begin to part ways with the real estate thugs, interested in a chance to finally test themselves against worthy opponents, to rediscover the fact that they are both martial artists.
Even Mang, who is the usual obnoxious young chump, is more complex than he might be in another movie. Yet again, he’s a character whose present is defined entirely by something that happened to him in the past — in this case, the fact that he was constantly exploited and abused by Cheung. It’s turned Mang into a trash talking dick with a Napoleon complex, but Gallants isn’t content with just letting him fill that archetypal role. We understand entirely why he holds such a grudge against Cheung, and part of Cheung’s journey toward rebirth involves confronting what he did to Mang when they were kids. American born rapper Jin Auyeung — M.C. Jin if you’re nasty — turns in the sort of Chinglish performance that, if you’ve seen it once, you know exactly what to expect. I think Daniel Wu invented it in Hong Kong films, but it reminds me most of Dante Basco in Fakin’ Da Funk. Lots of hip hop slang, randomly dropping into English, a lot of sneering and making the “Huh?!?!” face — it’s cartoony but not quite over the top. Jin is another guy in this cast who has no substantial acting experience — it seems like the cast of this movie each made either two or two hundred movies — but for a first timer, out of his element, and surrounded by a gaggle of legends, he holds his own.
Not that it matters. The young cast is good. The old cast, particularly Bruce Leung and his insane callouses, are great. But from the minute Master Law comes out of his coma, this movie belongs to Teddy Robin and his riff on the crotchety old kungfu master. Teddy has balanced a long career between acting, producing and composing music. Gallants provides him with ample opportunity to flex his comedic muscle as the arrogant but noble old master who has no idea he’s been asleep for thirty years, and he nails it every time he’s on screen. Yoda-esque in stature and possessing a high pitched croaky voice, much of his comedy has to be seen in context (“Call me…Ben”) or depends on how he says something rather than what he’s saying. He doesn’t recognize Tiger or Dragon, mistakes Cheung for Tiger and Dragon, and complains that Cheung has brought these two old bums into his kungfu school. He also steadfastly adheres to three rules: one, he hates anyone who practices kungfu for the health benefits only instead of using it to fight and raise hell (“If you just want to be healthy, go swimming or ride a bike”); two, he will not tolerate anyone with long hair; and three, ugly people are not welcome in his school (“Luckily, you’re quite handsome” he says to Bruce Leung). Amid the comedy, he even gets a few moments of genuine heart, and his final moments in the movie are handled with a poignancy and subtlety you might not expect.
If the acting belongs to Teddy Robin, then the action belongs to Bruce. Chen Kuan-tai seems to be playing the same role that he played in the 1970s — a guy so dependable and competent in the performance he turns in, that you tend to underestimate how good he really is. But Bruce — Bruce is a whirlwind in this movie. Relegated early in his career to the ghetto of Bruce Lee imitators, he had to bust his ass to prove that there was more to him than aping Bruce’s haircut and thumb to the nose. He became a frequent co-star of Angela Mao’s and went on to make some great films in the 70s, when people discovered he was a much better ass kicker than anyone had given him credit for when he was Brucing it up. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, people were going to see next gen stuff like Young Master and Prodigal Son and, a couple years later, Project A pretty much killed the sort of movies Bruce Leung (and everyone else) had been making.
Unable to make the transition to the new bone-breaking, stunt-driven style of Hong Kong kungfu film, Bruce’s career faded. In 1988, he appeared in what we could all safely assume was his last film. And for sixteen years, that was the case. He was dormant — either getting old and getting on with other aspects of his life, or encased in ice and slumbering under an Arctic ice shelf until humanity needed him again. It’s up to you to decide which eventuality is more likely (though I will give you a hint — Sho Kosugi is slumbering under the same ice shelf). Then, for some reason or other, Hong Kong comedy megastar Stephen Chow dug Bruce Leung up and gave him a substantial role in the blockbuster Kungfu Hustle — a movie which, much like Gallants , depended heavily on stars and fighting talent from the aging previous generation (albeit in a Looney Tunes sort of CGI-heavy fantasy world, rather than the no-nonsense no-computers approach of Gallants). So began an unlikely but warmly welcomed career revival for Bruce Leung.
Gallants gives him a chance, unlike the special effects laden Kungfu Hustle, to dust it up old style — or what is now the old style but was previously the new style that retired Bruce’s previous old style. Got it? In other words, he’s pulling off some serious Sammo Hung moves, full of speed, power, and surprising dexterity. This is the meatiest role, both as an actor and a fighter, that I think he’s ever had, and the opportunity to show what he can do in both aspects is not squandered. At the same time, as good as he is in the action scenes, the movie doesn’t let you forget that he’s an old man. His leg is week. He gets winded quickly. And his final duel, when Pon and Pong come to pay their respects and remember what it was like to be real fighters, is a delirious mixture of energy, speed, heartbreak, and earnestness. “When you’re older,” Master Pong tells a confused Mang, “you’ll understand.”
In an industry that doesn’t really feature seniors as anything other than background characters or cheap comic relief (“Oh, look — they’re having Betty White curse again”), and seems to worship at the altar of youth, Gallants never allows its older cast to be presented as novelties. Yeah, for long time fans, seeing Bruce, Kuan-tai, Lo Meng, and Siu Yam-yam in action once more is a treat, but the movie would betray its own theme if it allowed itself to simply get by on nostalgia alone. The writing-directing team of Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin, and Frankie Tam don’t have much experience between them, but they work hard to make Gallants heartfelt, honest, and witty, and something much more than a crass exercise in exploiting yesteryear. Like the cast, the crew puts everything into trying to make this movie good. And just like it does for the character sin the movie, that unwillingness to compromise, or to take the easy route, is what makes Gallants such a tremendously enjoyable movie.
And it’s not surprising that one of the central themes to emerge in the movie is that you should keep trying, find ways to keep believing, and always try to keep yourself moving forward while, at the same time, not forgetting what came before you. As if they were characters in the movie, the makes of Gallants went through an endless series of downfalls and rejections. No one wanted to finance this movie, this weird heart-on-the-sleeve celebration starring a bunch of people no one remembered or no one had heard of. Studio after studio slammed the door in their faces, until finally, somehow, word got around to Andy Lau. Lau loved the idea and brought the movie into his own production company, fronting his own money (or so I hear) to get it made. Martial arts movie fans everywhere ow him a debt of gratitude. Although I’ve never been disappointed with kungfu films that do nothing more than deliver the action, I’m even more pleased when a movie like Gallants comes along and proves just how fun, smart, and even touching the genre can be.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Teddy Robin Kwan, Wong You-Nam, J.J. Jia, Jin Auyeung, Li Haitao, Law Wing-cheong, Siu Yam-yam, Chan Wai-Man, Lo Meng, Ku Kuan-chung | Screenplay: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Director: Clement Cheng, Kwok Chi-kin | Cinematography: O Sing-Pui | Music: Teddy Robin Kwan, Tommy Wai | Producer: Ka Tung Lam, Andy Lau | Original Title: Da lui toi
American International Pictures in general, and Roger Corman in particular, were infamous for coming up with movie titles and poster art before coming up with a script. This meant that they often ended up with a film that had precious little to do with the title or promo material — promising Frankenstein in a movie that didn’t have Frankenstein in it, stuff like that. It was classic “movie maker as carnival barker” hucksterism, and I admire the approach as much as I bemoan the number of times it’s hornswaggled me into watching something I might otherwise have passed by. With that said, it’s refreshing to come across a movie who’s title exactly reflects the content of the film to which it’s attached. In fact, in the case of low-rent Hong Kong action comedy Kung Fu Chefs, the title is not only a true and accurate description of the film’s contents; it’s basically the entirety of the plot. There are guys who are chefs, and they do kungfu.
One of those guys is Sammo Hung. I assume that Sammo needs no introduction, but I assume that because I’m an old Hong Kong cinema obsessive, or at least I was until round about 2001, when all the stars I loved started getting old and were replaced by really boring pop idol types appearing in really uninteresting movies. Sammo was one of the building blocks of the Hong Kong new wave, and even more than Jackie Chan, it was Sammo who introduced the world to the sort of hard-hitting, eye-popping, lightning fast action choreography that helped define Hong Kong cinema in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. And he did it all while being a big fat guy with a staggeringly consistent procession of terrible haircuts.
Well, we’re decades past that heady belle epoque, and Sammo is turning sixty soon. He’s not as fast or agile as he used to be, nor can he take the type of beatings his style of choreography used to demand of him and everyone around him (the idea to make sure someone’s foot was covered in dust or powder so you could see that the fighters were actually making contact during fight scenes was his). Of course, he’s still a big fat guy, and he still has a terrible haircut (though it’ among his better ones, relatively speaking), and even if his star has faded a bit in his native Hong Kong, those of us elsewhere who cut our teeth on the Hong Kong films of days gone by still revere him as Big Brother Big, and for us, he still cranks out the occasional movie.
Kung Fu Chefs is the sort of low-budget quickie Sammo himself has said he’s not all that interested in doing at this stage in his life. Unfortunately, he has three sons who are all trying to break into the film business, and “we’ll give you a part if you get your dad to show up in our movie” tends to come up a lot. So Sammo keeps cranking out low budget films in order to keep his sons working. In fact, one of them shows up in this movie, long enough for his real-life dad to beat the crap out of him.
Sammo plays Wong Bing-ying, a master chef and village chief who is framed by his vengeance-minded nephew, Joe (Fan Siu-Wong, from The Story of Ricky). Joe blames Wong for the disappearance of Joe’s father/Wong’s brother (Leung Siu-Lung — that’s Bruce Leung to you and me), who was drunk and shamed one night long ago when he and Sammo squabbled over ownership of a near-mythical chef’s knife. If you can’t roll with that as a concept, then you are definitely in the wrong movie. And probably at the wrong website.
After Joe sabotages a wedding banquet with the help of an accomplice (Sammo’s son, Timmy Hung — professional tip one: if you want to succeed as an actor, reconsider “Timmy”), Sammo is forced to leave the village in disgrace. He ends up at a restaurant owned by two sisters played by Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi (from Fulltime Killer) and Ai Kago (a Japanese pop star and former member of the Logan’s Run-esque eternally youthful supergroup Morning Misume). At the same time, a hoshot young kungfu student named Ken (Vanness Wu — we’ll talk about that name in a moment) arrives, after having been sent out into the world to broaden his cooking skills. In this movie, cooking and kungfu are interchangeable, and no one practices one without practicing the other. Sammo challenges the resident chef to a duel, choosing the mysterious hipster Ken as his makeshift assistant, and the two soon become the top chefs of the restaurant. This doesn’t sit well with deposed Chef Tin, who seeks employment at the restaurant’s number one competitor — which just happens to be run by Joe.
There have been a number of “cooking as kungfu” movies from Hong Kong over the years, with the first big one being 1995′s Chinese Feast directed by Tsui Hark and starring Anita Yuen and Leslie Cheung. That was gave a passing nod to kungfu films, but it was much more an attempt to make a Chinese Tampopo. As food culture became more mainstream, there were bound to be more movies about it, and given the intense training and dedication of master chefs, coupling cooking with the martial arts was pretty much a given.
Such films went ballistic in 1996, when Stephen Chow directed and starred in the box office smash God of Cookery. In that, the relationship between cooking and kungfu was even more explicit than Chinese Feast, creating a genre I refer to as “kung food.” Over a decade after the fact, we get Kungfu Chefs, a movie that takes the relationship even further by basically taking the script for any of a thousand old kungfu films and just searching and replacing “kungfu” with “cooking.” Disgraced masters, cocky young protege, esoteric styles, training sequences, dueling schools, and of course, a big tournament at the end — the exact same ingredients go into this movie as went into so many old kungfu films.
As parody of both cooking and kungfu films, Kung Fu Chefs manages to be more entertaining than not, despite possessing a host of drawbacks. This movie feels like something that would have been cranked out in the early 1990s, during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, when everyone was so insane and energetic and flush with triad money that pretty much any old piece of crap could get made and become moderately successful. There was a glut of hastily assembled Hong Kong action films from that era that all played basically the same: broad acting, sloppy editing, numerous continuity and editing gaffes, cheesy synth score, and usually some spectacular action sequences that redeemed the whole mess. Apart from Sammo being older, if you told me Kung Fu Chefs was a product of that era, I would believe you. It has all the same elements, right down to the typo-riddled subtitles and awkward edits where music and dialogue is unceremoniously cut off in the transition to the ext scene, as were common in the slapdash productions of the late 80s and early 90s. If Cynthia Khan or Yukari Oshima had showed up at some point, the illusion would have been complete.
Kung Fu Chefs also has the same sort of half-assed script that characterized low-budget Hong Kong films from twenty years ago, full of hackneyed dialogue, jarring transitions, and scenes that just make no sense at all — like the one where Ken and Ying (Ai Kago) are locked in a deep freeze while a fight to free them rages outside. When Sammo is victorious, and finally procures the key to unlock the freezer in which his two proteges must be on the very edge of death, everyone stops for a leisurely conversation and some hand-shaking before, we assume, letting the two youngsters out of the freezer (we have to assume, because it’s never actually shown). On top of the bad writing and dialogue is the fact that this is basically the same plot as God of Cookery and Chinese Feast, both of which were considerably funnier than Kung Fu Chefs.
Also reminiscent of the worst of Hong Kong in the early 90s is some of the acting. Sammo is Sammo, of course, and while he seems at best moderately engaged by this film, he’s too much of an old pro not to turn in a decent performance. Bruce Leung, who has been enjoying an unexpected but very welcome career resurgence since appearing in Kung Fu Hustle as a guy who can inflate his neck like a frog, only has a cameo role, but one of his two scenes is a fight with Sammo, and that was just awesome.
Cherrie Ying barely registers as the older sister, but Ai Kago more than makes up for it by turning in a performance as the younger sister that is best described as “like a shrill, manic pixie on cocaine and helium.” It’s all squeaking, screaming, pouting, and wild gesticulating. Trying to match her step for step, with a totally comic-booky “I’m EVIL!!!!!” performance, is Fan Siu-wong, fondly remembered by cult movie fans for the time he punched a man’s eyeball out in the hilariously over-the-top Story of Ricky. Here, he’s all nonstop shouting, eye-bulging, and sneering. But where Ai’s performance could be seen as a parody in that it is every bit as annoying as the old performances it parodies (and I’m not convinced she was consciously trying to parody anything), Siu-wong’s over-the-top scenery chewing generally works as broad comedy (the only kind of comedy Hong Kong seems to appreciate).
Vanness Wu, who should have hired a consultant before picking his English name, is considerably more laid back than his inevitable romantic interest in this film, but he still does plenty of juvenile mugging in the vein of Jackie Chan back in the day. A while back, I had a long email conversation with Dave Tomas, proprietor of Steamed Prawn Buns, about the current generation of disappointing pretty boy action stars he dubbed “the hair farmers,” on account of their being more concerned with awesome hair than any actual martial arts or acting skills. We made particular fun of Vanness Wu, since he apparently liked the Western name Vanessa and assumed dropping the “a” equated to the masculine form of the name. I can’t think of any other explanation for such an inexplicable name choice.
Anyway, I wasn’t a fan, thinking him largely untalented, overly pouty, and yes, way too into the pretty boy routine. Despite his hamming it up in this movie, though, he kind of won me over a little, at least enough for me to think that he might have a future as something more than a forgettable boy toy model. Some actual acting talent, decent performance in the action scenes, and even charisma tempered with a self-deprecating willingness to be a total goofball made him charming. He was giving off a bit of a Takeshi Kaneshiro vibe this time around, though maybe I only think that because he had the same scrubby facial hair as Kaneshiro did in Red Cliff. He even handles himself well in the more demanding fight choreography, which is better than can be said for most of his hair farmer brethren.
Like I said, the otherwise crappy low-budget action films of the 1990s were often saved by their undeniable energy and over-the-top action scenes, and just as Kung Fu Chefs has all the flaws of such a film, it also has their redeeming strengths. The fight scenes are actually pretty good, and unlike the greater portion of modern kungfu films from anywhere in the world, it eschews CGI trickery in favor of old school choreography, with a few late 90s wire tricks thrown in to make sure Sammo can hop up onto those platforms. Grocery stores, restaurants, storage warehouses, and loading docks were, as you know, invented solely because they would serve as awesome locations for kungfu fights, and what precious little plot there is to Kung Fu Chefs is tailor made for making sure a fight does indeed occur at least once in each of these locations. Choreographed by the venerable Yuen clan, the action in Kung Fu Chefs may not raise the bar or shift the paradigm, but it does throw us back into a time when stars and stuntmen were willing to put some effort into the action, instead of just depending on the computer to move them around. It’s more complex and more physically demanding than anything we’ve seen in quite a while.
Similarly, there’s an undeniable glee in the films many cooking scenes, and it all comes together to lend Kung Fu Chefs an amiable sort of charm. It may not be fine cuisine, but it’s definitely easy-to-eat, disposable fast food. And the one thing it does lack that many 90s films had was an uncomfortable mean streak. Many were the times back int he day we’d be cruising along with a perfectly acceptable Hong Kong action or comedy film, only to have everything interrupted by some nightmarish rape or a woman getting her uterus cut out and shoved into her husband’s face or something. Kung Fu Chefs thankfully comes in a post-Wong Jing world, so we can kick back and relax. This movie is harmless, good-natured fluff from beginning to end.
If you are looking for a sign that Hong Kong is lifting itself out of the abyss its film industry collapsed into in the early days of the new millennium, Kung Fu Chefs is not the sign for which you are questing. It’s cheap, shoddy, sloppy, and generally idiotic. But it’s not lazy, it’s not mean-spirited, and it’s not lethargic. This isn’t the kind of movie that will turn someone into a Hong Kong movie fan, but if you’ve been one for a long time, and you remember the old days of renting VHS tapes from the local Chinese grocery store and sifting through all sorts of goofy junk while boiling your bag of frozen pot stickers, then you might, like me, find a movie worth enjoying amid all this nonsense.
On occasion, we here at Teleport City are accused of being, perhaps, not the most discerning of viewers, susceptible to pretty colors, flashing lights, and naked flesh that blind us to the fact that a movie might otherwise be one of the most atrocious pieces of crap ever made. Frustration can occur when someone looks to us, sees us shrug and go, “It seemed all right to me,” and takes that as a recommendation that eventually winds up with them writhing on the floor, clutching their head in agony as they succumb to the mind-melting wretchedness of a movie I thought wasn’t really all that bad. I can’t say I have done such things with a completely clear conscience. I may have mislead a few people into thinking the Star Wars Holiday Special was going to be hilariously awful instead of just regular ol’ boring awful. But for the most part, it’s true that I enjoy a lot of really terrible movies that I recognize other people probably should not watch. And the sad, sick thing is that I don’t enjoy these movies with any sense of ironic detachment or “so bad it’s good” emotional distance; I genuinely enjoy Treasure of the Four Crowns.
But never let it be said that I am totally without standards. Every now and then, something will parade across my screen that is too much for even me to excuse. It’s painful when it happens. As I’ve said many times, I’m hear to celebrate movies I enjoy, not rip apart movies I hate. And it’s doubly painful when I discover that a movie I was certain I was going to like ends up being almost totally unwatchable. Alas, such was the case with Amazons vs. Supermen, a movie that, on paper, seems to have been written specifically to delight me. Three super warriors, including one goofball in a bondage mask and chain mail miniskirt, a big strong guy in studded leather, and a kungfu guy, team up to battle scantily clad Amazons. Oh, and Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio is co-producing, which means the kungfu guy is martial arts movie superstar Yueh Hwa. There will also be flame-throwing wooden tanks (which seems like a terrible combination of vehicle fabrication material and mode of attack). And one more thing: Alfonso Brescia is directing. Now those things are prime ingredients in making any cake I will gleefully gobble down. And yet, by the end of the thing, which seemed to take forever to get to, all I could do was shake my head in dazed confusion as I tried to figure out how it could have all gone so terribly wrong. Of course, many people will throw up their arms and exclaim, “Alfonso Brescia was the director? What about that signaled any chance of success?” To which I can but meekly respond, “Well, I kinda like Alfonso Brescia movies.”
Alfonso Brescia’s career trajectory is really no different than that of most Italian exploitation film directors. He started out in the early 60s, directing a few sword and sandal films, as that genre was wildly popular at the time. Among these otherwise routine entries into the cycle was a film called Conquerors of Atlantis, which proffered a world in which Hercules (the perpetually confused Kirk Morris) teams up with a strapping Arab prince to battle the laser-gun wielding, metallic robe wearing, futuristic wizard army of Atlantis, which for some reason is now underneath the Sahara Desert. There’s really nothing abut the movie that isn’t completely awesome.
After that, Brescia moved along with everyone else into spaghetti westerns, sex comedies, and cheap war movies. In the early 1980s, late 1970s, he directed a series of cheap space opera movies that got made because Star Wars was popular. I seem to be one of the only fans of these movies, which used mostly the same cast, sets, and costumes and included War of the Robots, Cosmos: War of the Planets, Star Odyssey, and then culminated in the XXX rated Beast in Space, which once again used the same sets and costumes but, sadly, not the same cast. I would have paid good money to see Yanti Somer and her awesome crew cut in that movie.
Between the period of westerns and the science fiction, Brescia made a few more sword and sandal movies. Exactly what prompted this brief return to a dead genre I don’t know (the earlier peplum phase had died out by 1966). Perhaps it was the promise that now you could show some nudity. I don’t know for certain, but whatever the case, there was a sudden quick revival in sword and sandal movies, almost all of them this time revolving around the mythical Amazons (which lends credence to my thought that it was all about permission to flash a boob or two). Brescia made two such movies — 1973′s Battle of the Amazons and 1975′s Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte, better known (well, relatively speaking) as Amazons vs. Supermen, though the movie has so many alternate titles that you’d think Al Adamson had been involved with its distribution.
Things start off properly enough, with a village of bikini-clad Amazons (located in what looks to be a rock quarry — scenic!) engaging in those random sorts of deadly games that I think must surely have been the invention of movies. The best Amazonian warriors face off in a series of deadly contests that include standing on platforms and shooting arrows at each other, then all going down to wrestle amid a field of spikes. It’s possible that this was a contest to chose the next queen, but I’m not sure. If it wasn’t, then one has to question the strategic wisdom of having your very best warriors — including your queen — kill one another for absolutely no reason. There also seems to be some sort of schism among different factions of Amazons, but this never becomes a part of the plot apart from having a few women cheer for one person in this idiotic games over another. The games duly concluded, the Amazon queen Beghira (played by gorgeous Euro starlet Magda Konopka in a silly looking curly wig that I guess is supposed to make her appear more Greek) triumphantly announces “We’re going to go get Dharma and make him tell us the secret of the eternal fire!” Everyone cheers, but we the viewers have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
Nor will we for a while, as the next portion of the movie is taken up with the stories of two different wanderers, each of whom is set upon by a gang of profoundly inept and unfunny comic relief brigands lead by Philones (Riccardo Pizzuti). And here in lies the most significant problem with the whole movie. Had it been played as a straight but weird sword and sandal adventure, as Brescia did with Conquerors of Atlantis, the movie probably would have been a lot easier for me to enjoy. Instead, there is a near constant indulgence in woefully unfunny slapstick comedy and shenanigans. Even when the movie is playing it straight, as with its action scenes, they’re accompanied by “wacky hi-jinks” music that make them impossible to regard as anything other than more dumb comedy — which is kind of a shame, because the action scenes on their own are not without merit. But very few things, no matter how well mounted, can survive “diddle-dee-doo” comedy music and slide whistle sound effects every time someone jumps or falls down. As an experiment, try this: watch one of the big fight scenes in Gladiator, and alter nothing else about it, but instead of Hans Zimmer’s rip-off of “Mars, God of War,” dub in “Yakkety Sax.”
The first of the three wanderers set upon by the comical criminals is a hulking strongman named Moog (Mark Hannibal). When Philones and his wormy sidekick wander into a tavern (while holding their cloaks over the faces like Bela Lugosi’s stand-in in Plan 9 from Outer Space) and see Moog enjoying a bowl of stew, they decide that this is “the man they’ve been looking for,” then promptly call in their “hilariously” incompetent goon squad. Exactly why they’re looking for Moog is unexplained. It’s not like they’re working for some king that Moog offended, nor do they seem to have any prior experience with the man. No, they just decide that in the entire movie, the one guy they want to pick to randomly fuck with is the gigantic super-strong guy enjoying a bowl of soup. That’s like walking up to spindly ol’ Steve Buscemi and Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, neither of whom you know anything about, and going, “Roethlisberger, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Needless to say, Moog beats the tar out of his attackers, including punching one them repeatedly on the top of the head so that he bounces up and down like a basketball. he whole fight scene is, naturally, accompanied by wacky sound effects. He also has a golden ball that he throws at people. It has the magic power to ricochet off of things until it has taken out like ten bad guys. Deciding that this was perhaps the wrong target to shake down, Philones and his crew head out to the woods, where they stage an equally inept attack on a passing Chinese guy, Chung (Yueh Hwa, on loan as part of the Shaw Bros. co-production deal). Once again, Philones is on the receiving end of a beat down. The bulk of the bandits high tail it, but one — a Chinese woman (minor Shaw Bros. actress Karen Yeh Ling-chi) — stays behind for a little extra fighting. Sadly, no one that Yueh Hwa fights was very good at fight scenes, and so you don’t really get to be all that excited about his inclusion in the film. You might even hope that pitting him against another Shaw Bros. talent would result in at least a few thrills, but Karen Yeh Ling-chi wasn’t an action star. Aside from 14 Amazons (no relation to this movie), she did mostly dramas, romantic comedies, and a few sex movies. She was, however, no stranger to the Shaw Bros. cross-over experiment, having appeared in 1974′s spaghetti western-meets-kungfu film co-production The Stranger and the Gunfighter, which starred Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh.
Having spent a considerable amount of time watching Philones and his sidekick fall out of trees and trip over things, we finally get back to the plot in which the Amazons appear. A gang of the scantily clad women warriors ride into a nearby village and demand to know the whereabouts of local god Dharma It seems that Dharma is the immortal protector of the village, and the Amazons want to wring the secret of him immortality out of him. No sooner do the ladies start sticking spears in the faces of old men then there’s a big explosion and puff of magical smoke announcing the appearance of Dharma — the aforementioned man in a bondage mask and chain mail mini-skirt. He doesn’t so much protect the people and fight off the Amazons as he simply does lure the women away with a sort of “Run, run fast as you can; you can’t catch me; I’m the gingerbread man” taunt. He leads them on a chase and manages to lose them using his superior “jumping while accompanied by slide whistle sound effects” skills.
The villages dutifully march down to Dharma’s mountain throne (Brescia is really getting his money’s worth from this rock quarry he rented for the day) to sort of half-heartedly pay homage to him and thank him for, I guess, sort of rescuing them from the Amazons, even though they never would have had trouble with the Amazons if it hadn’t been for Dharma’s secret immortality fire. Dharma, however, is confused, though he manages to cover his confusion long enough to be a dick about the quality of the offerings being laid at his feet (“No peppers, no protection!”). Also, it looks like Dharma has transformed from a buff, fleet-footed lad into a spindly-legged old dude with a mustache. Luckily, the fact that Dharma always seem to appear off in the distance make it difficult for the cloddish peasants to catch onto the obvious fact that this is not the same Dharma who just rescued them.
It turns out that Dharma isn’t immortal at all. Like the comic book hero The Phantom, Dharma is simply a mask, passed down through the generations from one man to another. The current Dharma (Aldo Bufi Landi, nearing the end of an epic career in Italian exploitation film) has been training a buff replacement named Aru (Aldo Canti), who looks like a somewhat terrifying mix of Jack Nicholson and John Saxon. It was the young apprentice who donned the costume and bravely ran away from the Amazons. And while current Dharma is impressed with his chosen replacement’s enthusiasm and ability to leap mightily off hidden trampolines scattered around the countryside, he’s also worried that people might get suspicious if there are too many Dharma sightings involving too radically different looking Dharmas.
Aru soon meets and falls in love with a wounded Amazonian warrior named Akela (Alfonso Brescia company player and occasional sex film starlet Malisa Longo), though the severity of her sprained ankle is suspect since we see Aru and Dharma bandaging it in one scene, then later that day the bandage is off and she’s frolicking half nude in the local swimmin’ hole with Aru. Having known each other for several minutes, the two healthy young kids fall in love. Alas that they are from different worlds. Just as Aru looks as though he’s going to get some, he hears a shout. Amazons find Akela and bring her back home, while Aru discovers that Dharma has been fighting with the persistent women and now has a spear in the chest. It’s time for Aru to become Dharma full-time and put an end to the Amazon scourge once and for all.
Reading all that back, I confused myself (a surprisingly easy thing to do). “This can’t be right,” I thought. “This sounds awesome, but I distinctly remember the movie being so incredibly boring that I almost gave up on finishing it.” But then the fog cleared, and I remembered that part of what makes Amazons vs. Supermen such a colossal disappointment is that, in summary, it sounds like so much fun. But it isn’t. I can’t even put my finger exactly on why it’s so awful, though deferring to unfunny comedy hijinks certainly goes a long way in explaining things. Even when the action comes — and this movie does have a lot of action — it’s just not paced right. Star Aldo Canti was a stuntman, and he certainly throws himself into the physical aspect of the movie with reckless gusto. He spends nearly every moment of his screen time running, jumping, throwing things, flipping around, and bouncing up and down on hidden trampolines. He certainly gets an A for effort and even execution, but his zest for jumping over things is undercut by by indifferent direction, bad pacing, and too many comical sound effects.
Brescia mishandles all three of the film’s biggest action scenes, though to his creative credit, he manages to mishandle them in different ways. The first really big action setpiece comes when Moog the Strongman, Chung the Martial Artist, and Aru-Dharma meet for the first time in the local city. For starters, after establishing Dharma as some sort of local god (even if we know he’s a false one), it seems odd that the guy could stroll into the city and have no one give a crap or even recognize him. So I guess he’s a god local to that one village, but even so, if there’s a city within an easy walk from the village, you’d think word would get around that there was an all-powerful immortal guy living a mile away. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of scale. The speed with which people travel from one location to another seems to imply that Dharma’s village, the city, and the Amazon’s beautiful rock quarry are like a mile away from each other at the most.
Anyway, never minding Dharma’s lack of celebrity status in town, the scene in which he, Moog, and Chung meet and beat the crap out of yet another bunch of Philones’ goons should be pretty exciting. And it does have its moments, mostly thanks to Aldo Canti’s willingness to fling his body around with total disregard for his own well-being. Yueh Hua should be impressing us, but once again, there’s no one on hand who has any idea how to choreograph martial arts, and there are no stuntmen well suited for engaging in such choreography with Hua. That leaves him little to do other than wave his arms in people’s faces and swing a sword around a bit. As Moog, big Mark Hannibal has even less to do. The scene’s biggest problem is that in its best moments, it is only decent, and yet it seems to go on forever. If you are a gang of villains, and you are trying to take down a masked hero who is standing on a picnic table and jumping up every time you lunge at him, does it really take like ten times for you catch on to what he’s doing? I mean, if you really enjoy watching muscular men jump over a low angle camera (and I know some of you do) over and over for no discernible reason, I reckon this scene will be more interesting. For the rest of us, though, it gets old.
The movie’s second big action scene is the rescue of villagers from the Amazon stronghold by Moog, Chung, and New Dharma. Once again, our heroes take on the Amazons mostly by frantically running away from them and umping off of high places. There’s not a lot to this one really. It’s the third and final action scene that is the film’s most frustrating. In the tradition of Seven Samurai, the three supermen teach the local villagers how to defend themselves against the marauding women — ignoring once again the fact that the only reason the Amazons are attacking this village is because they want to capture Dharma. The final battle is a flurry of sword fighting and trampoline jumping — and there are even those wooden flame throwing tanks! I think the finale is actually pretty exciting — but I can’t be sure, since it’s set at night and Brescia fails to light the scene in a way that makes it possible to see anything that’s happening. The whole thing is a black, muddy mess. About the only thing you can be sure of is when an Amazon is on screen, since they were wearing white. It’s a shame, because like I said, the finale might have otherwise salvaged the film. As it’s presented, though, it’s just the final flip of the bird at the end of an entirely unsatisfying parking lot carnival ride.
Brescia applies the same degree of disinterest to the characters as he does to the action and the lighting. Normally, I wouldn’t claim that one comes to a sword and sandal film, even a Johnny-Come-Lately production like this, looking for sterling examples of intelligent characterization. That’s not what these movies are about. But what the peplum stars of the 60s had (well, some of them), and what is sorely lacking here, is charisma. It didn’t matter if Mark Forest’s character was thinly sketched. It didn’t matter if Kirk Morris was a wooden actor. Both men, and many of the others, brought charisma to the screen, and that helped you roll with their other short-comings. Aldo Canti was, as I said, a game physical performer, but he has absolutely no charisma. Dharma is a terrible bore, even when he’s doing his best somersaults an slide whistle jumps. And Yueh Hua? The dude doesn’t even speak Italian, so he pretty much does nothing but smile and stare at his co-stars lips in an effort to pick up his next cue.
Mark Hannibal, whose previous credits were bit parts in television shows, has a slightly more complex character. Well, it’s an effort to give him a slightly more complex character. It’s executed with such woodeness that one doesn’t really care, but it’s nice that the two only black people int he whole ancient whatever country this is supposed to be managed to find one another and fall in love. Dharma has his Amazon love interest, too, but they have almost no interaction after their initial romp in the waterfall, and I guess maybe there was supposed to be a hint of romance between Yueh Hua and Karen Yeh’s character, but that’s even less developed than Dharma’s love story. I know, I know — who cares about the love story? Well, I say if a movie is going to spend time on it, then the movie should at least try not to make it so boring.
As wooden and uninteresting as Aldo Canti is, at least Alfonso Brescia had the good sense to surround him with experienced hands. Unfortunately, none of them are really given much meat to work with, since the movie seems happiest when it’s spending time with Philones and his hammy cohorts. Seriously, if you don’t like plodding, idiotic attempts at comedy, this movie is going to be as bad for you as it was for me. Still, it’s nice to see some familiar faces.
Magda Konopka, who here plays the Amazon queen obsessed with possessing the secret of Dharma’s immortality, is a beauty you might remember from the equally disappointing Satanik. But we can forgive her that crappy film, since she was also in Hammer Studio’s prehistoric blowout, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and that movie is great. Malisa Longo is another world class Eurocult starlet. She appears in pretty much all of Alfonso Brescia’s sci-fi films except, predictably, The Beast in Space. However, it’s not appearing in an hilariously sleazy XXX space adventure was above her. She also appeared in Tinto Brass’ ham-fisted Nazi-sexploitation film Salon Kitty, as well as the cheap and sleazy Salon Kitty/Ilsa She Wolf of the SS rip-off (yes, I know the implications of that statement) Elsa Fraulein SS. She would star in another Ilsa rip-off, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, then go on to appear in skin flicks like Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle, so I don’t know why she wouldn’t have shown up in the buff, even in a non-hardcore role, when Brescia decided to pack up all his War of the Robots props and costumes and use them to make a deliciously daft porno movie. When she wasn’t busy flying around in space or taking off her clothes, she managed to pop up in a bit part in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, and around the same time as Amazons vs Supermen, appeared in War Goddess (aka Le guerriere dal seno nudo), another early 70s Italian sword and sandal film that, through some bizarre deal I can’t fully comprehend, was directed by Britain’s Terence Young — who you might remember as the director of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Sadly, as with Magda Konopka, this movie doesn’t really have any idea what to do with her, other than hustle her off-screen as quickly as possible so we can split our sides laughing at the latest shenanigans involving Philones.
Karen Yeh was, like Yueh Hua, talent on loan from the Shaw Bros. studio in Hong Kong, who had decided for some reason to partially finance this slapdash snore of an adventure film. I don’t really know too much about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t one of the studio’s major stars. She appeared in a few action films, like the gritty The Teahouse starring Chen Kuan-tai, and Shaolin Handlock starring David Chiang, a few comedies and romances, and the saucy, sleazy Sexy Girls of Denmark. Without a seasoned Shaw Bros. action director on hand (they should have traded one of those as part of the production deal as well), even her scenes with Yueh Hua are slow and awkward. As a character, she’s non-existent otherwise, with only a few lines and no real point.
Fairing slightly better is the last of the film’s bevy of beauties (if this film did nothing else right, it cast a lot of very pretty women and then put them in very tiny togas), American actress Lynne Moody. As Moog’s love interest, she really has little more to do than wander in and hug the big guy, but her character is interesting in part because it’s she who pursues the big man. He’s happy to look at her ass as she walks away, but when it comes to actually making a move, it’s all Lynne Moody. She also appeared in Scream Blacula Scream alongside Pam Grier, the mini-series Roots, and had a number of successful runs on television shows, including recurring characters on Hill Street Blues, That’s My Mama, Soap, E/R, and her longest running role, Knots Landing. She’s a classic sword and sandal starlet — not given a lot to do, but she has such a palpable charm and easy charisma that, as a performer, she rises above the rest. And that smile — my God, that smile!
Amazons vs Supermen came at a time when Shaw Bros., flush with cash and arguably the most powerful production company in the East, was spreading its wings and attempting to find success with overseas productions. Having missed the boat on Bruce Lee, and thus the international success that came to his studio with him, the Shaw Bros. were anxious to make a name for themselves outside the Asian market they already dominated. Five Fingers of Death was a huge success on the American grindhouse circuit, even before anyone had heard of Fist of Fury or The Chinese Connection, so maybe the Shaw Bros. felt like they deserved a higher profile.
Unfortunately, while their co-productions with overseas studios have found fans among cult film aficionados, to mainstream eyes they were shoddy affairs. The Shaws never seemed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to selecting partners. So you get things like them teaming up with England’s Hammer Studios for Shatter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires — impressive, except that Hammer was a dead man walking at that point, nearly out of business and with a devalued reputation beyond repair. At the same time, the Shaws were getting involved with Italian productions like this movie and The Stranger and the Gunfighter, cranked out on the cheap and with little regard for quality (though The Stranger and the Gunfighter, at least, remembered to be entertaining).
As a result, the Shaw product never got the respect they wanted overseas. The precision, energy, and exquisite quality of the Hong Kong productions just never carried over to their co-productions, in which they all too often trusted the quality of the final product to men like Alfonso Brescia. If nothing else, the studio could take solace in the fact that, other than Enter the Dragon, no other Hong Kong studio fared much better entering into co-productions with American and European studios.
Shortly after this movie, Brescia would turn his attention to the slew of space adventures I love so dearly. Now those I will defend. But Amazons vs. Supermen? No, you did me wrong. It’s a lifeless bore, cooked up by a director who didn’t care and even forgot to light the big finale. Hey man, if you can’t afford to shoot at night, then set your finale during the daytime. No one will really care about the time change; they’ll all be too happy they can just see the movie. It’s a shame such an opportunity was wasted and that a potentially fun adventure film got shafted because Brescia wanted to make a sub-Franco and Ciccio style slapstick comedy.
And hell, even if he wanted to make a sword and sandal comedy, all he really needed to do was copy Colossus and the Amazon Queen. That movie already had amazons and was already a comedy. The difference, I suppose, is that Vittorio Sala apparently had some idea how to make a comedy (that idea: “point the camera at Rod Taylor and let him ham it up”). Alfonso Brescia did not.
You let me down, Brescia. After all the time I spent defending your oddball space movies, you served me up a movie with everything I should like, but in a dish that was impossible to swallow. I forgot what I was watching where people were confronted with something that sounded awesome but ended up being terrible, and they summarized it with the question, “I don’t know! Why does cheese taste great on Italian food but it sucks on Chinese food?” Amazons vs. Supermen is definitely cheese on Chinese food.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: Italy, Hong Kong | Starring: Aldo Canti, Mark Hannibal, Yueh Hua, Malisa Longo, Aldo Bufi Landi, Magda Konopka, Genie Woods, Kirsten Gille, Riccardo Pizzuti, Lyn Moody, Karen Yeh | Screenplay: Alfonso Brescia, Aldo Crudo | Director: Alfonso Brescia | Music: Franco Micalizzi | Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Giorgio Carlo Rossi | Original Title: Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte | Alternate Titles: Barbarian Revenge, Return of the Barbarian Women, Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women
Dynamite Johnson is pretty much a textbook example of a filmmaker proving his exploitation acumen by making the most of both his resources and concept. “What textbook?,” I hear you ask. “Where can I get it? Will I be tested on this?” Shut up. No such book exists. But if it did, you could certainly do worse than having Filipino producer, director and writer Bobby Suarez as its author.
There’s a story about the day Sho Kosugi first arrived in the United States in pursuit of his dream of movie stardom. As the legend goes — for surely anything related to Sho Kosugi must qualify as legend, shrouded in myth, mist, and mystery — Sho stepped off the plane at LAX and meant to board a bus bound for Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where he intended to begin building his new life. Unfortunately, the young Kosugi could neither read nor understand very much English and so got on the wrong bus. Eventually, he found himself deposited in a rough part of town where he was promptly set upon by a trio of knife-wielding thugs. Calling upon the martial arts training he’d had while living in Japan, he quickly dispatched one of the assailants and sent the other two fleeing in terror. Somehow, a police car showed up and, after a detour down to the station, Sho finally found his way to Little Tokyo.