Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.
Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.
House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.
Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.
House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.
On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.
What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?
While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.
As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.
I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.
The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.
I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.
Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”
The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.
The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.
Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.
Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.
Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.
Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.
Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.
House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
Rough times for the industry means rough times for fans as well. Here in the United States, folks were hit with the double whammy of there being very few films worth seeing, and the few that were worth seeing were often snapped up by domestic distributors like Disney and Miramax, who would then do one of two things. They’d either stick the film in their vaults and forget about it, effectively eliminating it from circulation in the United States, or they’d do a horrendous dub chop, cut the film to ribbons, and mix in a cheap hip-hop soundtrack, being certain to include the song “Kungfu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in any and every Asian film possible. I really wonder at this point if the people who decide to put that song in these movies think they’re the first to do it. Did they miss the last ten releases from their same company using the same song? Will the hilarity never be exhausted?
Of course, die-hard fans could always shop overseas and find most (but not all) titles available online in their original language and uncut, widescreen format. It was still a lot of hassle just to see a subpar film like Legend of Zu. Luckily, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of decent new films, the void was filled by the past.
When Celestial Entertainment announced they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu. A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.
In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.
Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.
Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.
Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.
The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.
Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?
Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.
Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?
Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.
His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.
As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is simply wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.
The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.
Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.
That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.
All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.
As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.
But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.
The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.
You can’t overstate the impact Bruce has had on modern pop culture. Stars have come and gone, names like Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, and Jet Li are all familiar marquee names, but Bruce exists above all of them. Take a walk down any street in New York and you will see half a dozen shops with some sort of Bruce Lee merchandise. T-shirts, posters, scrolls, black velvet paintings, statues, action figures, movies — pretty much anything. I even saw one of those blacklight posters featuring the “holy trinity” of Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley.
And these aren’t just kungfu film specialty stores or Chinatown curiosity shops. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, whites, Dominicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, you name it and their culture has embraced The Dragon. No other action film star occupies the spot Bruce has obtained in our society. He is a modern day Greek hero, a Jason or Perseus, a man whose legend has grown to epic proportions. So, the obvious question from many people is “Why Bruce Lee?” What was it about this brash, good-looking young guy that made him such a phenomenon? Why Lee and not Ti Lung? Why Lee and not anyone else in the world? The answer is equal parts timing, skill, charm, and mystery.
Bruce hit the scene at a time when a lot of people in both Hong Kong and the United States were desperate for an underdog hero, especially one who wasn’t white. The world was gorged on James Bond rip-offs and sanitized Westerns full of chiseled white guy good looks. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, the Native American awareness movements that became things like the Wounded Knee siege — all these cultural elements were combining in an explosive wave of disillusionment with the way things used to be. The urban communities in America, who were hit especially hard by both the Vietnam War (since so many soldiers were minorities) and the frustration faced by the Civil Rights movement. With real-life heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. being gunned down, people were looking for heroes somewhere. Up until then Hollywood hadn’t been providing them with anything.
Then came Bruce Lee. It’s no coincidence that Lee hit the scene around the same time that black action stars like Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier were starting to make a big impact on the scene. People were fed up with Bond and John Wayne. They wanted someone more modern, more bad-ass, and most importantly, they wanted someone to whom they could relate. Bruce wasn’t white. He wasn’t big. His characters were not rich or influential or successful. He was an everyman for all other men who could not see themselves in the previous set of American heroes. He was different, and he was the underdog.
In each of Lee’s characters, there was plenty for the disillusioned to identify with. The condescension and racism hurled at him in Fist of Fury, having to take shit from a corrupt boss in Big Boss — there were things people recognized, and things people loved seeing Lee overcome. His biggest film in the United States, Enter the Dragon was a wild James Bond type action-adventure film where the Asian was the hero rather than a silly sidekick or devious villain. It was also a movie where the black character (Jim Kelly) is a noble and heroic man of principle, while the white guy (John Saxon) is a sleaze. A lovable sleaze, but a sleaze never the less.
Bruce Lee gave people hope, goofy as that might sound, that they too could overcome the odds facing them in everyday life. They could rise above the poverty and hopelessness of their situation. When Lee died under mysterious circumstances, it cemented his place not just as a star, but as a legend. His mark on society, from his face on a t-shirt to the popularity of martial arts training as a way to cope with growing up in the inner city, will remain in place long after the names of hundreds of other stars have been forgotten.
So which of these films should be the first Bruce Lee film we review? His biggest, Enter the Dragon? How about his first, Big Boss? Or the one most everybody considers his best, Fist of Fury (aka Chinese Connection). I think we’ve explained the whole Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Chinese Connection thing, but just in case you forgot, here’s the deal: when Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong films were brought over to the US to capitalize on the success of Enter the Dragon, someone screwed up and got the titles confused. Big Boss, Lee’s first film, was mislabeled Fist of Fury. Realizing the blunder too late to fix it, distributors took the actual Fist of Fury (Lee’s second, and many say best) and retitled it Chinese Connection, probably to capitalize on the success of French Connection as well as Lee.
Since they were on a roll, they decided to also retitle Way of the Dragon, calling it Return of the Dragon and marketing it as a sequel to Enter the Dragon despite the fact that it was made before that film.
But that brings us to where we want to be, which is the movie we’ve chosen to be the first Bruce Lee film we review. We chose it because it seems to slip through the cracks a lot, and because it’s the only complete film that was written, directed, and choreographed by Lee himself. It’s an excellent movie that allows Lee to showcase not just his incredible martial arts skill, but also his ability as an actor. Most people like to write Lee off as a one-trick pony, perhaps the best martial artist to ever live but a pretty rigid actor. Those people obviously go along with hearsay rather than actually investigating the matter themselves. People who claim Lee could only act enraged and couldn’t handle comedy should pay closer attention to this film, in which Lee gets to shine as a comedian as well as an all-around kungfu bad-ass. Bruce even gets to do stuff that results in that “wah wah waaaahhhh” comedy music!
We begin at an airport in beautiful Roma — that’s Rome to you non-cosmopolitan types out there. Bruce, playing Tang Long, is something of a country bumpkin from the rural land outside Hong Kong. Right away, Lee is great at invoking a sense of sympathy for his character. I mean, we all know Lee is the baddest man to ever walk the planet, but he plays his scenes here so realistically awkward and embarrassed that you feel bad yet amused for his fish-out-of-water character. He goes to an airport lounge and, not being able to read the menu, end sup ordering about six bowls of soup. Of course, he is still Bruce Lee, so he saves face by finishing them all, which allows him to launch a series of “must go to the toilet” jokes that will be a sure-fire comedy hit with the kids for years to come.
Lee also mines comedy gold in the “goofy effeminate guy with bad toupee” department. Bruce was, in fact, a huge fan of the Dean Martin – Jerry Lewis comedy team and the many films they did together. While Bruce’s sense of humor is not quite as slapstick (and far less annoying) than Jerry Lewis, you can still see the influence it had on him. The main difference here is that Bruce is both the goofy, out-of-place Jerry Lewis and the suave, competent Dean Martin, depending on what the situation called for. Bruce definitely had a lot more depth than people gave him credit for.
After the soup skit, Bruce meets up with his cousin, played by the lovely Nora Mao (Fist of Fury, Big Boss), his frequent co-star. Nora had written her uncle back in Hong Kong to explain that they were having a lot of trouble with thugs at the restaurant in Rome. She expected him to send a lawyer, and instead he sent Tang Long, which Nora isn’t exactly happy about as Tang is ignorant of big city culture, especially in the West. Tang Long explains that, while he may be a bit dim, he can help out in other ways.
He gets to show everyone his “other ways” when the thugs show up at the restaurant to smash things up and convince the Chinese to sell their land. It’s always something like that, isn’t it? The Man and The Mob are always trying to build malls on land owned by kungfu schools, community centers, and restaurants. It’s a tried and true film formula, but it’s also a comment on gentrification. In my old neighborhood, you could make a movie about The Gap trying to buy up land belonging to community gardens and outreach centers. Same shit, different era. I think The Gap stuck mostly to financial strong-arming, though, rather than sending thugs to beat up a guy named Pops.
Realizing that the thugs, one of whom I swear is Oliver Platt, won’t listen to words, Bruce decides to speak with kungfu. He thrashes them soundly in a great sequence. Great not just because Lee is so fast and crisp with his art, but also because Lee’s character undergoes a wonderful transformation. When dealing with the restaurant and the city of Rome, Tang Long is lost and vulnerable. But when he steps into the back alley to beat the shit out of the no-goodniks, he immediately becomes confident and in control. Ass kicking is a universal language, after all.
In between visits by the thugs, who keep arming themselves heavier and heavier only to still get the shit kicked out of them by Bruce, the film takes full advantage of its Rome locations. Hong Kong movies that filmed outside of Hong Kong were still very rare in the 1970s, so Lee takes in as much of Rome as can be crammed into a few “travelin’ all around” montages. Then it’s back to the alley behind the restaurant to kick ass on some more thugs. This is a pretty weak-ass mafia, I must say. But I guess they’re not the big-time guys we see in films like The Godfather. After all, those guys are controlling international drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and resort casinos. These guys are trying to muscle out a restaurant. It’s sort of like how most leprechauns get to guard gold and countless treasures, but Lucky the Leprechaun has to guard a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.
In a theme that is present in all of Lee’s Hong Kong films, he teaches other Chinese — other minorities — not to be ashamed of themselves or their heritage. When he arrives in Rome, the staff at the restaurant is practicing Japanese karate because they feel Chinese martial arts are weak and embarrassing. Once they see Lee in action, however, it fills them with pride and reinvigorates their interest in their own culture. This was an important theme for a film in 1972, and it’s a large part of why Bruce Lee became so popular. He fights for the right not to be ashamed of the color of your skin, and he shows that minorities can survive the pressures put on them by the established white majority. They can rise above racism by learning, relying upon, and believing in themselves.
Once the boss finally catches on that his thugs are a bunch of fat-ass losers, he hires some karateka bad-asses in the form of Bob Wall and Ing Sik-wang (Stoner, When Tae Kwan Do Strikes, Young Master). Wall is best known for his role as the right evil O’Hara in Enter the Dragon. After a while, Bruce gets sick of beating up the thugs, who just never seem to learn their lesson. So he goes to their headquarters, beats them up there, then does a very impressive kick in which he leaps up into the air and smashes an overhead lamp, completely without the use of tricks or wires. To accomplish the same simple but impressive kick these days would require Yeun Wo-ping to use ten miles of wires, pulleys, and CGI effects.
Pissed off about their light, the thugs hire their own kungfu bad-ass in the form of Chuck Norris. I know, I know. You guys here Chuck’s name and it makes you grimace and roll your eyes. Great. Now we gotta watch Lone Wolf McQuade. But take heart, li’l buckaroos. There is a vast difference between Chuck Norris the Bruce Lee opponent and Chuck Norris the Texas Ranger. For one, bash him all you want, but Chuck Norris was an amazing martial artist at his peak (which is when this movie was made, and why Bruce chose Norris). Legit martial artists and kungfu fighters all recognized Norris as possessing one of the fastest, deadliest spinning back kicks in the world. Judging Chuck’s abilities based on his American films is like, well, judging Cynthia Rothrock by her American films or Sammo Hung by his work on Martial Law.
The finale sees Lee face off against Norris in the maze-like arches of the Roman Coliseum, invoking the not-so-subtle image of modern-day gladiators. The ensuing battle is one of the best kungfu one-on-ones ever filmed, with the Benny Urquidez – Jackie Chan fight in Wheels On Meals being a distant second. Part of why the fight between Norris and Lee is so great is because it hurts. In 1972, kungfu film choreography was still pretty basic outside of Lee’s films, and a lot of the over-choreographed fights, while looking spectacular, lacked any sense of injury or power, especially when the guys would hit each other over and over with no real sign of damage.
When Lee and Norris hit each other, you can feel it. Their blows carry weight, and the weight shows. It’s obviously a result of two legitimate martial arts bad-asses being involved rather than two guys trained in Peking Opera, dance, or stage fighting. Of course, despite all the flesh-pounding-flesh action, the most painful scene comes when Lee uses Norris’ thick, Piltdown Man-esque coating of body hair (it’s possible he was one of the cavemen laughing at farts I talked about earlier) as a weapon, ripping out a big chunk of chest hair (he could have used a little off the back as well). Of course, ripping out a man’s chest hair makes you bad, but then proceeding to blow it into the man’s face makes you bad-ass. It’s the little things, you see.
There’s some end-of-the film shenanigans after the fight before Lee wraps everything up and heads back to Hong Kong. The film is absolutely superb. Lee shines as both an actor and a fighter, and his skill and charm should be more than enough to win over pretty much anyone. Watching this movie, you’ll have little question left in your mind why Lee has become to celebrated by so many different types of people. One could even take the Civil rights slogan “We Shall Overcome,” and apply it to the work of Bruce Lee.
Bruce’s direction is good. Nothing overly inventive or unique, but more than competent for a first-time director. It’s a bit raw at times, though he really shines at filming the fight scenes, which probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Sammo Hung, in many ways a student and master of Bruce Lee’s, would be the one director more than any of the others who would realize Lee’s ambitions in filming and directing kungfu films. What Lee began in Way of the Dragon and never finished in Game of Death, Sammo would carry to fruition in films like Knockabouts, Prodigal Son, and Project A. Makes you wonder what the “Three Brothers” of Sammo, Yuen Biao, and Jackie Chan would have been like if it had been four brothers, and one of them was Bruce Lee.
Way of the Dragon, aside from being some of Lee’s finest stuff, is notable for launching the film career of Chick Norris as well. I don’t actually know if this is a good thing, but I guess it was good for Chuck. He went on after this film to play a bigger role in another Hong Kong actioner, Slaughter in San Francisco, aka Yellow-Faced Tiger. That movie gave him ample opportunity to throw back his head and laugh in an evil fashion while he stood with arms akimbo. He also got to kick people. From there, it was the big-time, as he went on to play heroes in one crappy film after another, thus endearing him to the American public. If you have to watch any Chuck Norris film besides Way of the Dragon, make sure it’s The Octagon, because that at least has some ninjas in it.
Chuck Norris and Bob Wall would reunite many years later to make the film Hero and the Terror, and even later to appear as themselves in Sidekicks, a film best left undiscussed. Bruce, of course, went on to make Enter the Dragon, the film that would become his ladder to the realm of modern-day legend and launch the kungfu craze in America. Lee’s contributions to the genre are sundry. He gave it it’s banner star. He gave it the refinement of fight choreography, which up until Lee had been stiff and stage-like. He gave it comedy and heart. He gave it international appeal. He gave it Bruce Lee. A man full of anxieties, flaws, genius, ambition, fear, and fearlessness. A man whose name and face would become ubiquitous.
For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
He got his start in movies thanks to Bruce Lee’s many contacts in Hollywood, namely Dean Martin. Martin used Norris as a stunt extra for one of the Matt Helm movies before Norris really made an impact as the boss bad guy in Bruce Lee’s classic Way of the Dragon. Their confrontation during the film’s finale in the Roman Coliseum is one of the top screen fights in kungfu film history. Bruce wanted to work with Chuck Norris because, unlike most martial arts stars, he was adamant about casting real-life martial artists to fight n his film. Most filmmakers were happy with dancers, gymnasts, or people who could just wave their arms wildly at the camera and tumble around.
When Lee got a chance to direct a film, one of the first things he did was set about hiring the best martial artists he could afford. For the film’s biggest fight, he turned to Chuck Norris. After making such an impact in that film, where audiences around the globe were wowed by his intense fighting style and abundance of body hair, it was no surprise that people started thinking about casting him in larger roles. His first was as the head heavy in Yellow Faced Tiger, released in the United States as Slaughter in San Francisco. What that role had in common with his role in Way of the Dragon was that it was a Hong Kong film that didn’t really require more from Chuck than kicking some ass. His lines can be summed up pretty much as the following: “Hmmm,” “Arrrr,” and of course, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
When Chuck finally got to start speaking his own language (or any language at all beyond primal grunts and evil laughter), people found that he wasn’t really that great an actor. What did they expect? It’s not like he was actor. How good at karate are your average actors? Luckily, scripts rarely demanded more from Chuck than his poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and when they did, he was wooden but certainly not the worst performer in the world. Not that it mattered. People weren’t lining up to see Force of One in hopes of catching some really heart-wrenching scenes of Chuck Norris emoting all over the place. They were, however, hoping for heart-wrenching scenes in the most literal sense. In that category, Norris always delivered. Throughout the 1970s, Norris’ fame and onscreen body count grew rapidly. His specialty was the “man of peace driven to extreme measures by evil people,” his days as a cackling villain long behind him. Norris’ characters were always noble, humble, and generally fond of cowboy garb.
Folks liked Chuck Norris movies because they identified with him. He was just this normal looking guy: not all that handsome, not all that muscular, but possessed of intense inner strength matched by fists that could shatter brick and bone. He was always the moralist, always the straight guy, always the hero at a time when antiheroes were all the rage. Sure, he butted heads with the higher-ups and rattled a few cages, but that’s because there was so much corruption around him. He was just as likely to put cowboy boot to ass on a corrupt politician or police chief as he was coke dealer or robber-baron. While there was no shortage of tough-as-nails heroes for the urban crowd, Norris was one of the few guys out there dealing double-fisted beat-downs in the name of all the rural, small-town guys who talked softly and wore bootcut jeans. He was Billy Jack without the endless scenes of improvisational theater and explanations of the alternative hippie school.
The one problem aside from his limited acting range was the limited writing range of whoever was dreaming up those movies. Pretty much every one of them entails Chuck beating up a bunch of small-town thugs or international drug lords employing small-town thugs. Rarely did he face off against other martial artists, which I guess is realistic (how many fights have you seen that bust out into fully choreographed kungfu fights?) but not all that interesting to watch. Uneven pacing and cliché scripts only helped to muddy the waters, keeping most of Chuck’s films in the “not good but still enjoyable” range until the 1990s, when he dropped the “but still enjoyable” aspect of his work.
In 1980, Chuck Norris made a film that used what was then a little-known but increasingly popular martial arts legend. The legend was the Ninja, and the movie was The Octagon. The ninja trend would really start rolling a year later with the release of Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja, but Norris beat everyone to the spinning punch when he incorporated the mask-wearing shadow warriors into this not altogether bad little martial arts adventure. Norris plays Scott James – an action hero who has a normal name instead of being named something like “Derek Ice” or “Maximilian Scorpio, Esquire.” Scott’s just your average Southwestern dude who happens to have a secret Ninja past and a Ninja brother who wants to kill him some day. Scott also has a tendency to allow his thoughts to be broadcast as echoing whispers throughout the entire movie, which gets pretty annoying after about, oh let’s say the first time it happens. Call it personal preference, but I really hate the whole “echoing voice-over” thought-bubble thing. It just seems goofy to me, and I can’t stand that they always have to make it a whisper. Scott never thinks in a normal voice, just like all those people in Dune thought to themselves in whispers. I tend to think to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice, all booming and commanding.
Scott gets tangled up with a militia that trains potential terrorists using Ninja techniques. Watching these would-be thugs get their ninja training reminded me of the year Phillip Holder moved to Gainesville and amused us all with his self-aggrandizing fliers stapled up all over town. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Inside Kungfu is no doubt familiar not only with Chuck Norris brand karate jeans (with increased stretchability for when you need to kick a trucker in the head while still lookin’ good and not ripping the seat of your pants), but also with (self-proclaimed) Grand Master Phillip Holder, who peppered the magazine with ads hocking his instructional videos. When he moved his global training center to Gainesville, Florida, he put signs up everywhere looking for students who wanted to be trained by “the world’s third deadliest man.” No one ever explained that title to me. I guess there is some international governing body that hands out “deadliest man” rankings, but that still doesn’t explain the exact nature of Holder’s claim. Is he the third man to hold the title “world’s deadliest man,” or is that in the race to be the world’s deadliest man, there are two men in the world deadlier than Phillip Holder?
Anyway, he crossed over into Octagon territory when he opened a summer camp for “Bodyguard and Ninjitsu Training.” I have no doubt that Phillip Holder could hand me my ass on a silver platter, just as I have no doubt that the few beer-swilling, Joe Don Baker looking good ol’ boys who attended the Grand Master’s ninja summer camp could kick my ass in less time than it would take them to down a can of Red Dog, but let’s face it: being able to kick my ass doesn’t exactly qualify you for Grand Master status or serve as a major stepping stone on your way to becoming a ninja. I’m guessing that alumnus of the Phillip Holder Ninja Camp (or “Kamp” if you are funny) were about the same as the people graduating from this Octagon thing, meaning they’re the type of gang who would get their ass kicked by a single well-trained individual.
But Norris is a man of peace, and he doesn’t just haul off and kick someone’s ass without dragging the decision out for the first two-thirds of the film. Luckily, people keep trying to kill him for no real reason, so he does get to fight a lot in between echoing voice-over thought whispers of him going, “Sakura, could it be you?” as he contemplates the possibility that his old ninja brother is the man behind the terrorist ninja camp. Speaking of terrorist camps, here’s a question I’ve had on my mind since I first saw all that footage of Al Quaeda training facilities with the guys scrambling over ramps and stuff: why do terrorists need to know how to perform well on gymborees? Honestly, I think whenever Osama bin Laden couldn’t think of anything more destructive for his thugs to do, he’d just send them out to jump over the bars and swing on the ropes. Are they planning on taking down America by challenging us to a footrace through an obstacle course? Or are they training to win that Gymkata game?
One of the women at the terrorist training camp decides this is all a little much, and makes a hasty retreat, eventually coming into contact with Scott (Norris), who has been busy playing games with some rich chick while his best friend grumbles and Lee Van Cleef drifts in and out of the film in an attempt to spur Chuck’s character to action or possibly just collect a paycheck. You’d say that Van Cleef was slumming it in b-movie action realm if his filmography wasn’t so full of shame. Given that he would later go on to star in the abysmal Master Ninja television series, it’s safe to say that this movie is the pinnacle of all things Lee Van Cleef has done involving ninjas. Eventually, the reformed terrorist chick shows her boobs to Chuck Norris and he finally gets off his peace-lovin’ ass track down Sakura’s ninja camp. The terrorist chick shoots stuff, Lee Van Cleef gets to blow things up, and Chuck Norris has to fight his way through a maze filled with ninja henchmen before facing off against the final ninja henchman (who insists on wearing an elaborate get-up and metal mask even though the training facility is in the middle of the desert in Mexico) and, ultimately, his estranged blood brother.
The Octagon takes a lot of flack for “looking dated,” which has never hit me as an especially meaningful criticism. It’s what people say who can’t remember back more than three years. It’s not Chuck’s fault that fashion in the late 1970s was so abysmal. Luckily for him, cowboy fashion has been the same pretty much since the 1800′s, so at least he isn’t strutting around in all those plaid flares Sonny Chiba had a tendency to don. That a film looks dated really doesn’t bother me or register, most likely because I’ve been watching film so closely for so long now that I’ve simply learned to disregard certain trivial things that other people seem to get hung up on. Besides, there’s plenty of stuff to complain about in The Octagon without having to dwell on the khaki pantsuits and things like that.
First, of course, there’s that damn whispering. I go to bed at night, and I hear Chuck Norris whispering in the wind. I’m thinking of recording all his weird echoing whispers and playing them at random intervals during subway rides around town. That would at least afford me some small amount of satisfaction for having to hear ol’ Chuck’s whisper-thought so much. It seems weird to have to yell “Shut up!” at a guy who isn’t actually saying anything. Watching The Octagon is a simulation of what it must feel like to have ESP.
Coming out when it did, The Octagon is basically a 1970s action film with a 1980 release date. As such, it suffers from many of that era’s shortcomings, which are actually many of the same things that endeared the movies to me. It’s needlessly arty in some places, amateurishly crude in others. Flashbacks have a freaky tint to them, and many of the nighttime scenes are poorly lit (or at least poorly transferred from the original negatives). The pacing is also pretty uneven. When there’s action a-brewin’, it’s generally pretty good, but when it comes down to scenes of Chuck Norris engaging in witty banter with Lee Van Cleef or the rich lady, things just grind to a halt. Luckily, the final third of the film dispenses with the dialogue altogether save for the occasional shout of “Sakura!!!” and just makes with the martial arts mayhem.
I also don’t begrudge Chuck Norris the chance to have a cute girl get naked for him during the film’s one short love scene. Given the chance, I’m sure most of us would write ourselves a script that involved some attractive young gal rubbing her boobs against us, or some strapping young cabana boy giving us a cocoa butter rub-down. But understandable or not, I’m not so into seeing Chuck Norris’ carpetlike chest stroked lovingly like someone might pet a furry dog or a sasquatch. I mean, you slide your fingers into that jungle, and there’s a chance some of them won’t come back out.
Action, of course, is what we’re here for, and when the movie shuts up long enough, it delivers some solid martial arts fun. Sure, we’re not talking Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but as far as American martial arts films go, The Octagon has better than average fight scenes. Norris is in good form and this movie has the wisdom to pit him against other martial artists rather than fist-swinging country lugs. While the choreography isn’t mind-blowing, it’s definitely solid and even believable for the most part. Sakura is played by Japanese karate movie mainstay Tadashi Yamashita, and Richard Norton shows up as a thug, so this movie isn’t devoid of martial arts talent. For the most part, fights are well done. I’m sure fans of the wild wire-fu and undercranked nonsense will find the fights sluggish, but since I enjoy the old school even if it’s slower and doesn’t fly through the treetops, I thought The Octagon’s martial arts were pretty enjoyable.
As for the ninjas, I’m not quite sure what their deal was. I know that ninja popularity was on the rise as this film was being completed, but none of the ninjas in the movie do anything particularly ninjalike. Sure, they sneak into houses and try to strangle Chuck Norris, but there’s no real reason to do masks and cloaks for that. Well, masks maybe, but you don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings running around your average Southwestern city in a ninja uniform and cloak. They don’t seem to be teaching their students very much, either. Sakura and his sai-wielding ninja right hand man kick dirt at people and do that thing where you teach them a lesson by beating them up, but none of their pupils seems especially accomplished at any point. I wonder if Sakura and his masked pal didn’t go back home after a day of watching the recruits screw up and bemoan the sorry state of ninjitsu students these days. Additionally, if the entire idea behind the art of ninjitsu is that you blend in to your surroundings, why would a bunch of Japanese ninjas build their camp in Mexico then strut around the local barrio in their ninja outfits? Mexico is a pretty laid back place, but even the most stereotypical Mexican peasant would be stirred from his siesta by a troupe of ninjas marching down the street. Maybe Sakura just passes his men off as some Cirque du Soliel type of thing.
On the acting front – well, you get what you pay for. That Chuck Norris has never been nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar is no travesty of justice, and he proves that here. He’s not bad, per se, but he is stiff. He gives it the ol’ college try, and he’s better than a lot of the other actors in the genre. Lee Van Cleef is there to pay some bills, but he turns in a decent performance, though half the time exactly what he’s even doing is a bit unclear. Yamashida is all action, few words, as is Norton. The rest of the cast – well, let’s leave it at the fact that there’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of most of them before or after this film.
Problems aside, The Octagon really isn’t such a bad film. It was the first out of the ninja gate, even if Enter the Ninja was more popular, so it gets points for being historically important in that regard (or however historically important low-budget B-movie action films can be). It’s certainly better than vast many ninja films that would be released throughout the 1980s, sitting at the top of the heap alongside the likes of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Pray for Death. Granted, that’s not an especially tall heap, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re looking for wild ninja action and people disappearing into puffs of purple smoke, your better off with a film like Ninja Hunters. If, however, you appreciate decent low-budget 1970s action films, The Octagon has a lot of fun to offer despite the stop and go pacing and low production values. I’m much happier with a low key film like this than I am overblown, special effects laden crap like we see today. Call me a cranky old redneck with no taste, but I’d much rather see Chuck Norris beating up ninjas in some sandy courtyard than I would ever watch Jet Li do cgi-fu and “bullet time” effects.
Golan and Globus. Say the name. It rolls off the tongue with silky smoothness, leaving only the faintest oozing trail of snail-like effluvia in your mouth. Golan and Globus. A name that, along with the banner studio Cannon, means many different things to many different people. None of them are good, but many of them are enjoyable. In the 1980s, the powerhouse production tag team of Menahem Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, assaulted the world with a seemingly endless stream of cinematic swill that quickly became a staple of my early film-watching life. Nary a trend went unscathed as Cannon Films latched on to one flash in the pan after another, producing as many movies as humanly possible before the trend died out and the next thing came along.
We dealt with these gentlemen and their contributions to human society during a review of Treasure of the Four Crowns, the movie that proves you can make an Indiana Jones type adventure without a big budget, big stars, a good story, a good director, or good special effects; it just won’t be a very good film. I’d like to say that when I was young and foolish, Cannon Films comprised the vast bulk of what I wanted to see when I was over at my friend’s house who had one of those big satellite dishes. The only reason I can’t say that is because I’m not exactly young anymore, except when compared to Carl “Oldie” Olson or Young Mr. Grace, and I still love most of the Cannon Films I watched as a wee one. You could chalk it up to nostalgia, or more realistically, you could chalk it up to incredibly immature and undeveloped taste.
Finding out that Golan and/or Globus produced a film is enough to send most people heading for the hills with shotgun in tow, ready to board up the windows of their ramshackle cabin and send an assful of lead the way of anyone who approaches them waving a copy of Braddock: Missing in Action III or The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. Hardened fans of the films that tend to settle closer to the bottom of the barrel greet each Cannon Films release as a treat, albeit a treat not unlike a pack of Good ‘n’ Plenties. Say what you will, but these guys know exactly what to cram into their films to assure thousands upon thousands of adolescent boys will be going out of their way to borrow them from friends with premium cable channels or to just watch them between the wavy scrambled lines. The vast majority of Cannon productions can be boiled down to two fundamental elements that exist at the very top of the periodic table of bad movie elements: sex and violence.
When all else fails, or when you happen to be too lazy to try anything else, a sleazy movie producer can always rely on these enchanted looms to spin cinematic gold (or green, as the case may be) every time. Against our better judgment, it almost always works. Heck, the advertising for Showgirls was one degree shy of just flat-out saying, “It’s a bad movie, but it’s full of tits!” and you know what? People paid to see that. Striptease made a big deal out of the fact that Demi Moore bared her bosoms for the film, and folks flocked to the theaters to catch a glimpse of her nipples, apparently forgetting that she’s shown them off in damn near half the films she’s ever been in. The only difference is that in About Last Night, they weren’t perfectly spherical, gravity-defying orbs similar to Jim Kelley’s afro in the 1970s.
Golan and Globus productions generally fall somewhere below your average Dino De Laurentiis film but still above your average Roger Corman picture. At least Golan and Globus would spend some money on a movie. They may not pay to fly the crew to Japan, but they’d be more than willing to spring for a few weeks in Manila as long as you worked cheap. From Sylvia Kristel to David and Peter Paul, the steroid-powered twins, the halls of Cannon are filled with the sort of macho heroes and nekkid ladies people demand from their cheap exploitation cinema.
When an author by the name of Eric Von Lustbader penned a novel called The Ninja that quickly shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed perched atop that pyramid for five months, the boys at Cannon smelled a trend that had been steadily building for the past several months. Genres of film go through popularity cycles, and every seven to ten years, what was popular then becomes popular again. Martial arts movies were due for a return to the big screen, as packed revivals of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon had shown throughout 1979. The popularity of The Ninja and the smash 1980 miniseries Shogun starring Richard Chamberlain (who would later work with Cannon Films on King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel) and the legendary Toshiro Mifune foretold that this time around, Japan would be the focus rather than China.
Like the masters of sneakiness and surprise that they are, ninjas had slowly and quietly been infiltrating the mainstream consciousness of America for quite some time. One of the first non-Asian films to feature a ninja was the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, during the filming of which the production ruined the ancient, wooden walls of Osaka Castle by throwing real shuriken (throwing stars) into them. Throughout the 1970s, people became more familiar with these mysterious denizens of the shadows when they were featured as the heavies in many a kungfu film. By 1980, the success of The Ninja and Shogun (which also features a ninja or two) opened the doors to the big screen in the form of Chuck Norris’s The Octagon, arguably the first of the ninja exploitation films that leapt out of the trees and onto an unsuspecting American public.
As they were passed down from one movie to the next, the authenticity of the ninja became warped beyond comprehension. Basic facts were still more or less intact – specifically, that they were highly skilled assassins and masters of disguise – but little else remained true to any historic roots. The ninjas of old got their start round about eleven hundred years ago with two separate mountain clans in central Japan – the Iga and the Koga. Isolated form the greater portion of Japan in much the same way that the people of the American Appalachians were insulated from the United States, the mountain clans developed into legendary farmers, healers, and weather forecaster with a profound respect for the land that lent them their livelihood.
It was from these mountain clans, steeped in ancient tradition and religious beliefs, that the ninja would acquire their mystical flavoring. Drawing from the Shinto reverence for nature and the esoteric philosophy of Mikkyo, ninjas came to rely on a belief in secret symbols and sacred words as a way to enhance personal power. The religious aspects of ninjitsu eventually mixed with the martial arts of China, which were carried to Japan by exile warriors seeking asylum after the fall of the T’ang dynasty.
The final ingredient in the birth of the Ninja clans was the influence of a sect of people known as the Shugenja, wandering holy men who sought enlightenment through self-imposed physical suffering. They’re the sort of guys who would sit naked in the snow or hang off the side of a cliff in order to understand cold or overcome the fear of hanging off the side of a cliff. Through these acts of punishment, the Shugenja would come to understand nature, and in understanding nature would be able to draw power from it. There’s really very little that’s different from the philosophy of the Shugenja and the philosophy of a mountain man or pioneer. The concepts of “drawing power from an understanding of nature” manifests itself practically as knowing how to stay alive in the woods, knowing what plants and berries you can eat, what certain signs in the weather might imply, things like that. Although approached from a religious frame of mind, the philosophy of the Shugenja and the Ninja is astoundingly practical and down-to-earth.
What the sundry warlords of feudal Japan saw in the Ninja were easy targets. Hillbillies who could be taxed and exploited and were too powerless in government to defend themselves. They weren’t entirely correct. Their superior knowledge of nature and of wilderness survival made a Ninja a fearsome opponent even for a well-trained samurai. Small groups of Ninja could hold off entire armies simply by employing a greater understanding of the land and how to use it to one’s advantage. All that cool looking samurai armor isn’t going to do you much good when some bunch of farmers are rolling boulders and logs down on you. Contact with Chinese martial artists helped them develop a fighting skill and tactical sense that was often greater than the commanders of the samurai legions, and it wasn’t long before the Ninja clans added political savvy to their repertoire. The manipulated policy to protect their villages and would gleefully promote any ignorant superstition about themselves that kept people nervous and away from their hills. Once again, similarities to the so-called hillbillies of Appalachia abound.
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan and ended the bloody era of warring states and petty lords. The new shogun decided he would hire Ninja to be his personal bodyguards. For the most part, members of the Ninja clan stayed out of the mainstream political and military scene, preferring to stick to things that directly affected them and their villages. The allure of money is strong, though, and for some Ninja it was more than enough to lure them out of the mountain forests and valleys and into the halls of the Imperial Castle, newly established in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) instead of its traditional home in Kyoto. Other Ninja looking for a quick way to make money rented themselves out as spies. Ninja had always been willing to do a little infiltration here and there in order to protect their family and community, and now some of them were putting these skills up for auction to the highest bidder rather than sticking to the tradition of working for and as part of the Ninja community.
These are, of course, the Ninja embraced by film and literature. Though noble and definitely interesting, the fact that most Ninjas were farmers and herbalists doesn’t necessarily make for rousing tales of action. Few and far between are the people who would see a movie called Furious Blade of the Ninja that was all about a clan of Ninja diligently hoeing the garden and using scythes to clear a patch of land for planting. The Ninja who rented themselves out – the sell-outs, basically – made for cooler stories, and so the renegades and the Ninja in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate became the basis for the bulk of the books and movies that were to come.
Unfortunately for the sell-outs, with the Tokugawa era came relative peace throughout Japan. Ninja eventually moved from roles as saboteurs, spies, and assassins to being castle guards, and eventually they came full circle, being relegated to the ranks of palace servants — most specifically, the gardener.
The outlandish notions regarding the Ninja that have become de rigueur in most ninja films evolved directly from a combination of widespread ignorance, propaganda, and creative license. Because the Ninja clans followed a different set of rules than those that governed the samurai lifestyle (ninpo instead of bushido), most of Japan’s looked down upon the Ninja as backward hayseeds and uncivilized countryfolk. They were the rednecks of medieval Japan. Part of the resentment toward the Ninja communities also came from the fact that the samurai were generally so unsuccessful at dealing with them. Masters of guerilla warfare – a necessity for a group of poor mountain folk who are vastly outnumbered by well-equipped armies – the Ninja were often able to befuddle even well-trained samurai through their command of the land and understanding of the sneakier aspects of a fight. Defeated samurai decried the Ninja tactics as dishonorable and deceitful; the Ninjas claimed they were fighting the only way practicality would allow.
To a samurai lost in the woods, it must have seemed like these backwoods yokels were wielding some sort of magic power. They would appear and vanish without a trace, use every part of nature to their benefit. Combine befuddlement with ego, and a samurai would return home with tail between legs and spin fanciful yarns about how the only reason he was defeated was because the Ninja disappeared into thin air, flew over the treetops, and performed other feats of wizardry.
The Ninja clans, in turn, were more than happy to take this hyperbole and run with it. The more people feared them, the less likely people were to come around and stick their nose into the Ninja communities. Because the Ninja were a secretive and insular community, there really wasn’t anyone to talk sense into people and refute the claim that Ninjas disappeared into clouds of multicolored smoke or were able to explode into hundreds of tiny ninjas.
While most early filmic depictions stuck to the historical facts about the ninjas who became assassins and spies for hire, the farther things moved from their Japanese roots, the more the wild old stories were once again embraced. Before too long, thanks in part to Chinese kungfu films, ninjas were everywhere, often clad in garish neon outfits and doing things like flying over castles and shooting flame out of their hands. By the 1980s, things really got out of hand, and more than a few movies from both sides of the Pacific featured people in wildly colorful ninja outfits running around the streets of modern-day cities. Of course, any real ninja would understand the key to performing their job is to blend end and seem nondescript and normal. You don’t get very far as a spy if you look like a spy, and there is very little that’s nondescript about a guy in metallic red pajamas and a facemask running down the streets of modern-day Duluth while waving a katana over his head.
Logic and history didn’t really matter of course. What people wanted wasn’t historical accuracy; they wanted guys screaming and using weird weapons and wearing hoods. And by 1980, American filmmakers were ready to give it to them.
Hot on the heels of The Octagon came Golan and Globus with 1981′s Enter the Ninja, the film that really kicked the trend into high gear. Real-life martial arts superstar Mike Stone had this script called Dance Of Death. He’d been shopping it around without much success, and eventually the thing landed on the desk of Menahem Golan. It took Golan a while to read it since he wasn’t initially interested in a martial arts movie. The success of The Ninja novel quickly changed his mind, and before long he and Stone were heading down to the Philippines to make a little movie called Enter the Ninja. Stone was set to star, at least until production began. Then all of a sudden, Stone was just the fight choreographer and stunt double for the new star, Italian action star Franco Nero.
One look at Nero will explain the sudden change. He oozes ninja. When you think of a ninja, the mental image in your mind is going to be very close to Franco Nero: tall, blond, a little solid in the weight department, and adorned with a thick Maurizio Merli mustache. Stone was baffled, but what the hell? He was getting paid more to work behind the scenes and as a double than he was originally offered to be the star. The one problem that emerges in the film with Stone as Nero’s double is that he’s not only leaner, he also has a big, dark white guy ‘fro while Nero has fairly thin, blond hair. The end result is that one minute you’re watching Franco Nero strike a ninja pose, and the next minute you’re going, “Is that Screech kicking that guy’s ass?” Luckily, most of the action takes place behind the hood and mask of a ninja uniform, so the difference is only obvious in a few scenes.
Nero plays Cole, the first Westerner to ever be recognized by a Japanese school of ninjitsu. He gets this recognition by running through a bamboo forest and pretending to kill his ninja brothers and master. He looks resplendent in his bright white ninja uniform, the perfect color for blending in with his lush green background. As a testament to the sophistication of his skill, he manages to bury himself, climb trees, jump off cliffs, and swim in a brackish pond while still keeping his duds sparkling white. Now my friends and I used to do run around like ninjas in the woods fairly regularly, but no one ever flew in from Japan to give us any recognition, I assume because Sho Kosugi was working behind the scenes to prevent us from receiving our due. At least, that’s what he does here. Kosugi plays Cole’s ninja brother, Hasegawa, who is not as impressed as the master by Cole’s ability to sprint through the jungle and pretend to behead people. Hasegawa displays his ninja training prowess by tipping over his tea cup, pounding his fists on the table, and whining, “He is no ninja!” If you’ve ever been to a friend’s birthday party where one kid starts crying, or your friend gets yelled at by his mom in front of everyone, you have a general idea of how this feels for all the other ninjas. They just keep quiet, stare at the table, and pray that the cake comes soon.
With his newfound ninja credentials secure, Cole heads to the Philippines to visit his old war buddy, Frank Landers, played by Alex Courtney. Courtney looks like a b-movie version of James Caan. He and his British wife have one of those standard issue pieces of land that some greedy developer wants to buy. They, of course, won’t sell, having fallen in love with the simple, rustic life of owning a lavish Filipino plantation house. The greedy businessman, who of course, lounges about his posh high-rise office space in a silk robe, employs a variety of ludicrous goons in hopes of strong-arming Frank into selling the land. Leading the goons is Sigfried, a bulbous limping worm of a German stereotype in a white Panama Jack suit (you’ll see many of those during the course of the film) and sporting a keen hook hand. Exactly why a man who could best be described as “hamster-like” or “not dissimilar to that Goatman on Saturday Night Live gets to be in charge is a mystery.
Movies, especially bad movies, have a tendency to always cast some incredibly greasy little twerp as the leader of the evil thugs. What are they thinking? Fat German weasels who sweat a lot and can’t walk are seldom the leader of vicious street toughs, but in movies, gangs always get lead by the goofiest guy imaginable? I mean, what makes a criminal mastermind look at an overweight sweat hog with a bum leg and think, “This is the perfect guy to be my main thug!” Oh sure, he has a hook hand, but his nasal voice and gland problems negate the coolness of steel, and his primary value of a fighter seems to be the ability to stick the occasional surly dock worker in the thigh.
Cole quickly becomes entangled in Frank’s fight to get rid of the thugs, which in a way is actually in line with ancient Ninja priorities about defending their farms and small rural villages from big city heavies. This could be an accident, though. The script from here on out is pretty much what you would expect. There’s a scene of Frank getting drunk and losing hope, followed by a scene of Cole kicking someone’s ass. Peppered throughout are scenes of Filipino farmers getting beat up by the lamest looking bunch of thugs you could possibly imagine. Someone apparently employed the cast of Taxi to be the muscle, only they told Tony Danza to stay home.
Isn’t there a single Filipino who can fight? Here’s the thing movies have never understood. They always feature some backwater town full of helpless peasants who get bullied by even the lamest of villains. Try this experiment: go to some small hick town, go to the local bar, and try to start some shit. Walk up to the first guy you see and pour his Red Dog into his lap, then say, “I think you work for me now, asshole.” As the six-foot six factory worker with a belt buckle bigger than your head stands up in preparation for pounding your ass into next week, reflect on why it is movies always feature skinny-ass, no-fighting-talent goofballs reigning over entire hick towns like little Hitlers. In my experience, small towns are over the world are pretty much the same, and whether it’s Africa or the Philippines, I find it difficult to believe there’s not a single Filipino bad-ass who could just strut up and beat the unholy crap out of the sweaty German goatman or the floppy-haired beanpole whose big 1970s mustache weighs more than the rest of him.
Trust me. Go to some seedy Filipino bar in some small farming shantytown, start throwing your weight around (possibly while faking a limp and a sniveling German accent) and see if a dozen muscular, tan guys with mustaches, cowboy hats, and open Hawaiian shirts don’t line up to teach you a valuable lesson about the difference between movies and real life.
Because this was the 1980s, Cole is joined by the “comic relief codger,” who fulfills the role with gusto, even performing the standard routine of popping up to cover the hero with a gun when faced with a dozen opponents. He also fulfills the role by upholding the tradition of not being very funny. You know, you could probably count the number of comic relief characters who were actually funny on one hand, even if it was a hook hand.
Seeing how Cole has a cackling old fart with a white beard, a drunk guy with a white dude afro, and a sassy British gal as his army, the developer sends out a couple more guys in white suits and hires Hasegawa, telling the ninja master that they are fighting local thugs and bullies who are hassling the farmers. The ninja master doesn’t really research this claim too heavily. Hasegawa himself isn’t as naive about the motivations of his new employers, and he doesn’t much care so long as it gives him a chance to face off against Cole. After all the expendable characters have been dealt with (how many films feature a guy who turns to alcohol and doesn’t get killed as a means to motivate the hero?), and a large amount of sneaking around is done, Cole and Hasegawa finally face off in an old boxing arena. Cole also finally slips on his form-fitting white ninja uniform to contrast nicely with Hasegawa’s black uniform. It’s a welcome change from the tight slacks Cole’s been sporting for most of the movie.
Enter the Ninja isn’t what one would call a great movie, but it’s not as bad as you might thing. Though Cannon’s follow-up, Revenge of the Ninja was both better and sillier, Enter the Ninja is still a fair movie and certainly better than the vast majority of ninja films that would follow in its footsteps. Golan’s direction is pedestrian and uninteresting, but it gets the job done. His big flirtation with style is to play the “wah wah wah wahhhhh” comedy punchline music when Cole rips off Sigfried’s hook hand and throws it to him with the singer, “Hey! You forgot something.” The acting is not half bad. Franco Nero is not very convincing as a master of the martial arts, but he is convincing as a fist-swinging bad-ass, and on top of that, he’s a decent actor. The supporting cast is okay, though most of them are relegated to the ranks of speechless thug or over-the-top action film cliche.
The plot has its fair share of goofiness, of course, but at the heart of things is a predictable though time-tested story about the greedy developer picking on the innocent. That plot worked for a million black action films, so there’s no reason it can’t work for a ninja film. The silliness stems mostly from the fact that Cole and Hasegawa feel the need to thrown on their ninja uniforms for the big finale. What’s the point? All the bad guys already know who Cole is, and everyone knows who Hasegawa is as well. What’s the point in wrapping your head up in a sight-restricting hood to hide your identity? Nothing looks sillier than a guy in a white ninja suit stepping out of a Caddie in a modern setting.
Another big question would be: where the hell are the cops? Not to mention the Filipinos who can fight? I mean, the Philippines aren’t a savage and untamed land. They do have police there. The first thing Cole does when he gets to town is impale a guy on a work bench. You’d think someone with some authority would want to have a chat about that. People are killed left and right, and not once do the authorities show up to even be corrupt and take a bribe from the rich guy.
And then of course, there’s the final joke in which Cole thinks about killing the now reformed and utterly defenseless Sigfried just for shits and giggles.
All things considered, and in the greater scheme of things, Stone’s script commits no great offenses worse than anything you’d find in any other low-budget action film. In fact, as far as ninja films go, it’s one of the most sensible scripts around. Although Hasegawa and Cole do eventually suit up in the traditional garb, Cole does most of his ninja-ing in a pair of slacks and a seersucker shirt or in a jogging suit. And not once do they perform mystical feats like flying or disappearing or splitting themselves into phantom decoy images. It’s all pretty straight-forward, no-nonsense stuff, and given the utter absurdities that would soon clog the ninja arteries, the simple yet grounded-in-reality (relatively speaking) story is a welcome thing. It wasn’t until after this film that things would get ridiculous and Tomas Tang would have lanky white guys in shiny red, white and blue ninja outfits running around with bright yellow headbands that said “Ninja” on them in that jagged “Oriental” font.
Enter the Ninja takes a lot of flack as a result of just how low the genre would sink – not that it was ever that high. When your two best entries in a genre both come from Cannon Films, you’re in trouble. Most of the disdain is unwarranted however, and people often attribute the foibles of later movies to this one. A quick viewing will reveal to you that, while not a great movie by any stretch, Enter the Ninja also isn’t a bad movie. As action fare goes, it’s fairly harmless and even enjoyable in that late 1970s/early 1980s way. It maintains a pretty violent pace despite the lame comic relief bits, the action comes frequently, and the script, while no work of art, at least makes simple sense in the world of action films. Try on any plot from any Tang/Godfrey Ho film and tell me if you don’t find yourself with a newfound appreciation for Mike Stone’s derivative but more or less logical story (again, this is all relative).
The fight choreography ranges from typical to slightly above-average, with the final sword fight between Cole (being played under the mask by Mike Stone) and Hasegawa being the high point. It’s obvious that you have two real martial artists doing the work during that scene, and while no one’s going to look at it and see Swordsman-like movies, it’s a not a bad bout. The rest of the fights consist of the typical American “guy with martial arts fights lugs without martial arts,” so there’s very little in the way of martial arts choreography. Franco Nero basically hits the guys a lot, then transforms into Mike Stone to deliver the occasional kick or flip. Not good stuff, but not bad if you are just looking for fist fights. All in all, if you want scintillating martial arts mayhem, Enter the Ninja is going to leave you cold. If you want historical facts about ninjas, you’re going to be just as cold, and you really should start exercising better judgment in where you look for historical information.
If, however, you’re looking for an unpolished but fairly enjoyable low-budget action film that just happens to feature two guys who don ninja uniforms at the very end, then you could do worse. It may not be art, but it’s got a certain grimy charm. Art or not, it was a box office hit, and then it was even bigger when it debuted on the new medium of cable television, the format on which Cannon would build an empire. A quick release to theaters just to be polite would then be followed by heavy rotation on HBO, and an army of underaged brats would become instant fans.
People like to rip apart American-made martial arts film, with the basis for the action usually being that they’re generally really horrible movies. The fights are plodding and poorly done, the scripts are atrocious if there’s even enough work put into it to be atrocious, and the production values are slightly above what you might find in your better infomercials. They’re easy targets and generally deserve the wrath they inspire. But they’re not all totally worthless. Enter the Ninja has very few examples of what might be called good writing or good fighting, but it’s not the worst thing ever. When Stone and Kosugi lock up, there’s some decent stuff. When Franco Nero is in control, he caries himself with all the fleet-footed grace of a drunk lumberjack, but at least you’ll believe he could kick the shit out of Sigfried. The biggest problem American films have, especially from this period, is that they almost always feature a guy with kungfu fighting a guy with no kungfu. The end result isn’t much to see. While Enter the Ninja certainly has its fair share of such scuffles, it at least has the good sense to move along at a brisk pace. Within the realm of American-made martial arts films, and that’s a sad realm indeed, Enter the Ninja is probably one of the top ten films, falling behind contemporaries like Revenge of the Ninja and newer films like Shanghai Noon.
Cannon followed the success of this film with Revenge of the Ninja, this time turning the tables and making Sho Kosugi the hero. He did very little in Enter the Ninja until the end, but Revenge was his show. It was supposed to be Stone’s show, but once again, Golan pulled the rug out from under the karate champ and left him standing in the rain. It seems kind of cruel, but given Stone’s acting career after his time with Cannon (as in, he didn’t have one), perhaps his acting skills were simply not as impressive as his fighting skills. Revenge of the Ninja did pair Kosugi with another real-life martial arts star, Keith Vitale, who would go on to star in a number of crappy American martial arts films and the not crappy at all Jackie Chan/Sammo Hun/Yuen Biao film, Wheels on Meals, where he was outshined by creepy Benny Urquidez.
Enter the Ninja allows Sho Kosugi to enjoy what would in the ensuing years become known as the “Boba Fett Phenomenon.” Named for the Star Wars bad-ass who never actually does a single bad-ass thing gets his ass handed to him lickety-split the first time we see him fight, the phenomenon happens whenever a character is perceived as an ultra-cool bad-ass despite there being a single bit of onscreen evidence to support the reputation. In Enter the Ninja we see Sho Kosugi fight twice. He gets his ass kicked both times. The only time he wins a fight is when he’s tangling with a drunk. All things considered, his onscreen fight victories are no more impressive or numerous than those of Sigfried.
But at least he looked good getting his ass kicked, and Sho Kosugi was aggressive enough behind the scenes to parlay his supporting villain role into a short but memorable career. When the ninja craze died out a few years later, Sho disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came, emerging only once in the 1990s in an attempt to market his “Ninjasize” workout video, complete with spandex-clad “Ninjettes.” It didn’t really grab the world the same way Tae Bo or the Gazelle did, but I guess it paid a few bills.
Good or bad, and I maintain that there is actually more good than bad, Enter the Ninja is a landmark film, the one that started it all, the Conan the Barbarian of ninja exploitation. Just like Conan, Enter the Ninja’s reputation is harmed by the infinite crimes that would be committed in its name, from crappy American ninja movies to guys with mullets wearing ninja pants and practicing their nunchuka skills in the park, Enter the Ninja spawned far more idiocy than it actually contains. It’s not as good as Conan by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not as bad as you may think if you haven’t seen it in a long time. Goofy action fun is all I need sometimes, and that’s all Enter the Ninja delivers.
Just when you thought America’s cities were getting safer (as our suburbs and rural towns get more dangerous), you leave the house to walk down to the corner bodego and catch sight of a bunch of cops fighting with a ninja. It’s more than likely that at some point the ninja throws down an eggshell grenade and disappears into a puff of red smoke. Or maybe you stumble upon a couple of ninjas all fighting each other in the middle of 2nd Avenue. It may sound weird to our late 1990s ears, but way back in the 1980s, this is how things were. America’s cities were infested with ninjas, usually wearing the traditional black ninja suit, but sometimes also wearing shiny gold, red, green, or purple outfits. The urban ninja is not above a fashion statement, after all. Statistics estimate that in the early- to mid-1980s, for every thousand cockroaches in a city, there were also five ninjas. Since every American city has a cockroach population numbering in the hundreds of millions, you can bet that’s quite a few ninjas along for the ride.
Stanley Tong sucks. I don’t make such sophisticated statements without some degree of deliberation and thought, and after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m left with no alternative than to pass judgement on this Hong Kong director, and my judgement is that I could never see another Stanley Tong film in my life, and I wouldn’t be all that upset. Any number of things about his work annoy me, but first and foremost is his ability to make even the most dynamic stars uninteresting and dull. I mean, this is the guy who had Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Lo, and Yuen Wah together in the same film (Police Story III: Supercop) and made them all disappointing. Oh sure, Michelle did the stunt where she jumped the motorcycle onto the moving train, and that was cool and all, but ten seconds out of a ninety minute film hardly justifies the tedium. What kind of fool puts Jackie Chan and Yuen Wah in the same film and doesn’t think to stage a fight scene? Or Jackie Chan and Ken Lo? Or Jackie Chan and anybody? He might as well not have even been in that movie. Tong went on to make Rumble in the Bronx, one of the most ludicrous of all Jackie’s films but at least it was fun and Jackie fought a hovercraft. Tong then redeemed himself slightly with the above-average Police Story IV: First Strike. But then he made Mr. Magoo, and it was all over.
China Strike Force was supposed to be his big comeback film, his grand return to Hong Kong, and at least financially he was successful. The movie made a lot of cash at a time when Hong Kong films were still recovering from an industry collapse that sent everyone reeling for over a decade. China Strike Force had a lot going for it. First, there was Aaron Kwok. For years, Kwok was plagued by his pretty-boy teen idol image and questionable choice of unbuttoned shirts covered in metallic blue feathers. It held him back and kept him from ever being taken seriously as a legitimate action star. Then he got a few years older, the wrinkles started to show here and there, and while he may still be a handsome lad, he started to get the age and character that would enable him to finally break through. A few more pounds and a few more scars and he’d be set to join the Hong Kong action set without looking out of place among the traditionally grizzled veterans. For whatever reason though — probably his unwillingness to give up tight sequined shirts and boas and such — he never really clicked, or he hit at a time when the action star was a thing of the past.
And then this film has Norika Fujiwara. You’d have to try real hard to find more of a knock-out than this woman. She was a model and a television actress in Japan before getting her big break in this film, and in getting her break, we’ve all received a break as well because she’s gorgeous and not nearly as untalented as most other models-turned-actress. Throw in direct-to-video American action king Mark Dacascos, and you have one of the best-looking casts around. I’ve always thought Dacascos deserved to be a bigger star than he was. Why is a guy who moves this well, who can act at least halfway decent, and who is a striking guy to boot, going direct to video? It’s unlikely at this point he’ll ever catch his break. Instead he’ll be doomed to a life not unlike Don “The Dragon” Wilson, which is at least a good doom. I wish I could be doomed to be pretty damn rich after making an endless string of low-budget action films.
China Strike Force itself has a pretty typical plot. Dacascos plays your run-of-the-mill young gangster guy who is intent on taking over the business, does not care for the tradition of honor, etc etc etc. These guys have been in about every gangster movie ever made in any country, but some old fart always trusts them, only to get shot in the back when the time is right. Aaron Kwok plays Darren, a hotshot cop who is always annoying his superiors. He has a partner who barely does enough memorable stuff to result in anyone remembering his name. He’s only there to die, as in one of the most contrived scenes even for an action film, the movie takes a break from all sorts of shooting and jumping about to feature a scene where Darren and his partner go out for dinner, and Darren asks his partner “So your wedding is soon?” They might as well flash up a big red “This guy is going to die!!!” subtitle. Everyone should know by now that in a cop film, the cop who is retiring, getting married, about to have a baby, or just bought a boat is always going to get wasted. It’s a time-honored tradition. Handled properly, it can be kind of funny. Handled without any finesse whatsoever, as it is here, it’s just plain annoying. As if that wasn’t predictable enough, he’s also marrying the chief’s daughter.
While the cops pal around, we learn that Dacascos plans to increase his underworld power by selling drugs. As is par for the course in this type of movie, the aging gangster who took Dacascos under his wing hates drugs and vows that his organization will never be a party to the selling of such foul goods, since we all know the triad dudes of the 60s and 70s were basically saints. Extortion, murder, prostitution, slavery, gun smuggling — these are all noble ventures, but drug peddling is right out. This news irks Dacascos’ partner in America, played by hip hop star Coolio, who is apparently not a fan of Weird Al Yankovich. Coolio plays your very stereotypical jive-talkin’, cigar-smokin’ hustler who’s only task in this movie is to say “Holy shit!” and “Cuz” or however you spell the slang for “cousin.” He’s pretty good at doing that, and luckily nothing else is demanded of him. To no one’s surprise but the old guy, Dacascos plots with Coolio, who’s character is actually named Coolio, to off the old man and take the business over.
Also thrown into the mix is Norika, who is an undercover Interpol agent trying to get info on the old man’s operation. Of course, no one knows she works for Interpol, as that is the general idea behind being undercover, but even someone who is still surprised by the plot twists in a Girls Gone Wild video can tell from her first scene that she’s an undercover cop. One thing I like about a film like China Strike Force is that I don’t have to worry about spoiling it for anyone. It’s all so plodding and obvious that it’s impossible to ruin any surprises. An underworld assassination at a big fashion show gives the film an excuse for two important things: a lot of sexy women parading about in skimpy panties, and the film’s first action sequence, in which Aaron Kwok chases the assassin through the streets of Hong Kong using a variety of vehicles. At one point, Stanley Tong even has the gall to completely rip off his own “moving motorcycle” stunt from Supercop, though he manages to screw it up more this time around by using a lot of wires to make the whole think look goofy instead of cool.
The first action scene sets the stage for what you can expect from the rest of the movie: something just isn’t right about it. Sure, there is a lot going on, but it just doesn’t click. The wires are employed so they can go “over the top,” but it winds up looking silly. In a fantasy film I don’t mind wires and flying. In a reality-based action film, I think they look out of place but can still be used with great effect. In this, however, they are used very clumsily, and they detract greatly from the potential impact of what could have been cool fights and action sequences. Actually, now that I rewatch it, the first action sequence is the best one in the movie. It almost, but not quite, achieves a flow and if nothing else is kind of cool because the assassin guy gets run over, hit by cars, punched, kicked, thrown off moving trucks, and even jumps off a giant bridge — yet he still shows up later in the movie only to get killed in the most boring, mundane way. Way to give us a potentially cool character then treat him like an afterthought. Thanks, Stanley.
But far more than wires and missed character opportunities is the glaring problem that has plagued Stanley Tong’s films since he first stepped behind the camera. He has no sense of pacing or rhythm. Tong started his career as a stuntman, and while we all know he can dream up and even perform some cool stunts, being able to properly film them is something else entirely. Tong’s action sequences never find a groove. They always feel disjointed and, as a result, awkward and sloppy. Part of the problem here is that he’s trying to make a kungfu action film with a cast that doesn’t have much kungfu skill, but even that can’t wash away Tong’s own lack of directorial skill since he brought the same plodding sense of confusion to action scenes involving Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, both proven commodities. What it boils down to, then, is that Stanley Tong just isn’t a very good director. Or rather, he’s an astoundingly mediocre director who makes astoundingly mediocre movies.
Anyway, lots of action film cliches follow. Rather than pay the assassin, who seems damn near indestructible and would seem to be a worthwhile investment, Coolio just kills the guy. Mark Dacascos does indeed kill the old guy and start selling drugs. Aaron Kwok’s partner does indeed die tragically. Aaron falls for Norika and, in an attempt to give us more T&A, has a pointless, out-of-place daydream about massaging her thigh. I’m all for T&A, male and female, but come on. Put a little effort into working it into the film. I mean, they had the T&A scene where Norika infiltrates Dacascos’ and Coolio’s gang by showing up in a tiny string bikini then stripping down to nothing to prove she isn’t wearing any wires or anything. That was an okay excuse for some T&A.
Eventually, Aaron and Norika close in on Coolio and Dacascos so they can have the big action blow-out. Just as Stanley Tong can’t direct an action scene, so too does he always blow the finale of his films. Supercop has both Yuen Wah and Ken Lo for Jackie and/or Michelle to fight, so they knock off both those guys in about one second in very offhand manners, and leave Jackie to face… an old guy. Police Story IV gives us an underwater fight scene — funny but fairly disappointing — before having Jackie slip around with a fake shark. Then of course Rumble in the Bronx completely forgot to even have a finale, so we just get Jackie Chan driving a hovercraft to a final showdown with… another old guy. This is worse than when the big final scene in Game of Death ended up being Bruce Lee versus… Gig Young. At least Gig Young was middle aged.
This time around, Tong tries to deliver an action-packed finale, but once again his own lack of skill as a director trips him and everyone else up. Mark Dacascos is a genuine martial arts bad-ass, or at least he can pull it off wonderfully on screen. So God forbid we include him in the final fight scene. No, let’s kill him off in the usual goofy, offhand manner. Let’s crush him with a purple pimp car dangling from a helicopter. Then let’s have a huge kungfu fight between the three people with the least amount of kungfu skill. Aaron Kwok versus Mark Dacascos could have been pulled off, and with a different director it might have even looked good. Coolio versus Aaron Kwok is about the stupidest damn fight scene I’ve seen in a long time, and that includes the fight scene in The Matrix where that woman jumps up in the air and strikes the most absurd looking “pouncing chicken” stance I’ve ever seen while she hovers and the camera pans around her.
Since Coolio and Norika are no martial artists, and Aaron Kwok is a passable on-screen kungfu star at best, that means we have to have a big gimmick to make up for the lack of interesting fight choreography. Tong’s answer? Have the whole fight scene take place on a teetering pane of glass dangling from a crane hundreds of feet up in the air. It might sound exciting at first, but think about it, and let me use this pro wrestling analogy. Many years ago, WCW had a pay-per-view match between the dull Dustin Rhodes and the even duller Blacktop Bully. The gimmick of the match was that the whole thing was going to take place on the trailer of a moving truck. It might have sounded cool at first, but the end result was two guys moving very, very slowly while trying to keep their balance as the truck poked along various lonely highways at speeds in excess of ten miles an hour.
This finale is that wrestling match. Norika, Coolio, and Aaron all scoot about very gingerly while trying not to fall off the glass. From time to time, one person or another will dangle off the edge or try to kick someone. And then Coolio finally falls, but only after one false change of heart. You know, where the villain is about to die, begs the hero to save him, and once being saved immediately reverts back to his dastardly ways. Heroes always fall for that shit. I mean, before you flew around with the purple pimpmobile dangling from a helicopter, he was selling crack to nine-year-old kids. Now all of a sudden he’s maybe not that bad a guy? They only do this so the hero can kill the villain without looking like a murderer. How many action movies end with the hero refusing to kill the villain, only to have the villain suddenly produce some weapon, thus justifying the hero turning around and offing the guy? It’s a weak cop-out. People want their bloodlust satisfied, but you also can’t just have a hero who hauls off and shoots people after beating their ass. In the end, Coolio falls off the glass and Norika and Aaron fall in love for no real reason. They were only together about two days, and most of that time was spent being hoisted around on wires and pretending Coolio knew kungfu.
The big problem with China Strike Force is how average it is. It’s impossible to completely blast it and say it’s awful, because it’s not. At the same time, it sure as hell ain’t a good movie. It’s just… bland. Poorly directed. Awkwardly paced. Horribly choreographed. Completely cliche. In the hands of a good director this could have been a good movie. In the hands of someone as incompetent as Stanley Tong, the movie never manages to rise above a mundane level. It takes a talented director to elevate poorly written action film nonsense into something memorable, and Tong does not have the tools for the task. As such, China Strike Force remains an unsatisfying, though not completely unentertaining, failure.
Given the uninspired direction, the film’s sundry flaws become impossible to ignore. The English language dialogue, of which there is quite a lot, is ludicrous. Who wrote this crap? I mean, it’s English. I recognize the words, but it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like English that was spit out of one of those online translation things that can get the vocabulary but fails utterly to comprehend nuances and grammatical rules. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue was recorded at a level barely audible to dogs and mice, let alone humans. Whenever a hip hop song plays — and they play often — suddenly it’s like you have the volume on eleven, but when they go back to speaking, everything is silent again. Thus watching this movie is a constant battle with the volume control. And speaking of English, what the hell is up with Mark Dacascos’ character? How are you going to become the lord of a vast Chinese criminal underworld if you don’t speak a lick of Chinese? Even people of Chinese ancestry I know who grew up in America know at least a few words in their grandparents’ tongue, but this guy doesn’t know a single phrase. Surely the Chinese triads would not be overly accommodating of a new boss who murders other bosses, can’t speak any Chinese, and brings Coolio to all the parties.
The film’s other big short-coming is, of course, the pacing. Stanley Tong can do no right when it comes to figuring out how to pace and stage an action sequence. He cuts when he should stay still, he shoots in close all the time so we can’t see anything. He never finds a rhythm or a flow for the action. He loves to go over the top, but only in ways that are ludicrous rather than breathtaking. The many action scenes in this film range from pedestrian to lumbering. You spend the whole scene waiting for something to be done well, then all of a sudden it’s over, leaving you with an empty feeling and no sense of satisfaction. And then sometimes it’s all too ludicrous, even for a Hong Kong action film. When Dacascos and Coolio are down at the docks watching the boys unpack a Ferrari or one of them other fancy sports cars, Aaron shows up and spoils the fun, leading to a completely unbelievable scene where Dacascos takes off in the sportscar and Aaron luckily happens upon a passing truck full of forumla one race cars which, despite the highly explosive nature, apparently ship fully gassed and ready to go. Of course, this all happens after the part in that first fight/chase scene where he rides a motorcycle up the flat vertical surface of a delivery truck’s rear door. I think he repeats that nifty trick at the end of the movie as well.
The finale, which is by and large a ripoff of the helicopter finale from Tong’s earlier Supercop, is hardly the pay-off I was hoping for. It’s not cool or original. It’s just, well, stupid. From the whole “car dangling from the helicopter” bit, to Mark Dacascos being killed without ever facing off against the heroes, to the completely disjointed and uninteresting “fight” between Norika, Aaron, and Coolio, Tong certainly tries a lot of stuff, but none of it works. To add insult to injury, Tong’s reliance on the most obvious and awkward of wire stunts makes it impossible to enjoy even on a visceral level. On the plus side, however, Norika looks great in her leather fightin’ outfit.
The acting is passable, but the roles aren’t very demanding. Aaron Kwok was coming along, but as of this film he was not quite there physically or in his acting skill. Norika is basically there to look good and kick some ass, and she is OK at both. When she has to act, it’s only the shallowest of deals. Even a paperdoll could pull it off, so no complaints. Dacascos is alright, but if he’s going to be a Chinese gangster, even one from America, he should have learned to fake his way through some Cantonese. Coolio is playing a stereotype, and you have to be really untalented not to pull that off. Everyone else is pretty forgettable. Aaron’s partner is so bland that when he dies, you hardly notice. His fiance is every bit his match in blandness, so that even though she loses her future husband and her father (not the same man), it really doesn’t matter all that much. The movie punctuates this by completely blowing her off at the end in exchange for a kissing scene between Norika and Aaron, which of course comes out of nowhere.
The only thing memorable about this film is how good it might have been if someone else had directed. As has always been the case, Stanley Tong was given all the pieces for a great film and just couldn’t make them fit together. I should have come away beaming and saying “That was great!!!” Instead, I walked away slowly thinking, “Well, that was average… I guess.” Awkward drama, awkward comedy, and awkward action sequences are tenuously strung together in what proves to be a very average film. Sure, it’s better than watching a Mario Van Peebles film, but around the same time as this movie was made, guys like Johnny To were raising the bar and giving us enjoyable, well-made action films and making Stanley Tong’s lack of skill even more glaring. He has no style, and he has no substance. In the end, China Strike Force, like most of his movies, is a bland and somewhat tedious exercise in paint-by-numbers film-making on the level of some of your more uninteresting direct-to-video action films. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again.
Release Year: 2000 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Aaron Kwok, Norika Fujiwara, Lee-Hom Wang, Ruby Lin, Coolio, Mark Dacascos, Ken Lo, Paul Chun, Siu-Ming Lau, Jennifer Lin, Benny Lai, Li Hsueh Tung | Screenplay: Stanley Tong, Steven Whitney | Director: Stanley Tong | Cinematography: Jeffrey C. Mygatt | Music: Nathan Wang | Producer: Andre Morgan, Stanley Tong, Barbie Tung | Original Title: Leui ting jin ging
Sometimes, real life events contribute to the effectiveness of an on-screen story. A tremendous act of synchronicity results in the alignment of elements, each one falling into place so perfectly that it could never be orchestrated by anything but nature itself. Such is the case with the mini-flood of ninja movies during the 1980s, and the life of the star of most of the movies — a man named Sho Kosugi. No one had heard of Sho Kosugi, but when the ninja craze hit American shores, he suddenly stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight, bringing to our attention the secret tactics and lives of the mysterious warriors known as ninja. When the craze finally died out, Sho Kosugi vanished back into the shadows without a trace. Some said he went into hiding, pursued by an ancient sect of ninja who wanted to kill him for divulging their secrets to the world. Some say that to this very day he is kicked back and living the good life in some secret mansion alongside Bruce Lee, also in hiding from those who would seek to murder him.
Whatever the case may be, there is no denying that Sho Kosugi’s mysterious past, present, and future, contributed to the mystique of the ninja movie. And though his son, Kane, carries on the tradition established by his father of Kosugi family members starring in sub-par martial arts films (Kane has starred in shows like KakuRanger and Ultraman Powered), he does not wield the power or command the respect his father did. Sho Kosugi was a Asian bad-ass in American film when there were no Asian bad-asses. Bruce Lee had passed on and wouldn’t enjoy a revival until the 1990s. Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan were busy kicking ass over in Hong Kong, but their wild exploits were all but non-existent if you were living in America. No, the best we had over here was Chuck Norris, donning the traditional martial arts garb of a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, some rawhide vest, and of course, Chuck Norris brand karate stretch jeans, as advertised in early 1980s copies of Inside Kungfu.
When the notorious production team of Golan and Globus, who gave us many of the films we watch today on Mystery Science Theater 3000, decided they wanted to make a film about ninjas, they called upon Sho Kosugi to be the heavy. For some reason, Italian B-movie star Franco Nero was cast as the doughy hero. He’s best known for his role as Django, the cowboy who wanders the old west with a coffin in tow. That’s cool and all, but now he got to don a white ninja outfit and have a stunt double jump around. It … didn’t work. The film was Enter the Ninja, and while there are many interesting stories about it, I will save those for an actual review of Enter the Ninja. Suffice it to say that audiences were wowed by the zany ninja antics, a trend was born, and no one gave a shit about Franco Nero. They did, however, dig Sho Kosugi. So when Golan and Globus decided to milk the genre for all it was worth (but not as badly as Thomas Tang would milk it) and make another ninja film, they called on Sho Kosugi to play the lead.
This was at a time when Asian men were reduced to playing ass grabbers (Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects) and seedy criminals (Year of the Dragon). Even black heroes had fallen by the wayside. The 1980s were the era of big white heroes, and the days of Bruce Lee and Fred Williamson were gone. So it was a big deal to have Sho Kosugi storm the party and lend a non-white face to violent, heroic derring-do. Although Sho Kosugi was still fulfilling a stereotype (martial arts bad-ass), you gotta admit that’s not a bad stereotype to have. It’s better than most. And it’s cooler than the white American stereotype, which is a big dumb-ass with a gun. He fulfilled a more important role, though, that had been vacated with the death of black action films and the gentrification of kungfu films. He was a non-white hero kicking ass in a predominantly white world. It’s no wonder Sho and the ninja films were embraced so whole-heartedly. For anyone who couldn’t relate to the time-hopping exploits of Michael J. Fox or the sweaty machismo of Rambo, Sho Kosugi was all they had.
Incidentally, there are a lot of big dumb-asses with guns in this film, which was called Revenge of the Ninja. It has nothing to do with Enter the Ninja, other than having ninjas all over the damn place. During the 1980s, you could actually see more ninjas running around in broad daylight in downtown LA than you saw at night during the middle ages in Japan. In the case of Sho Kosugi, he is a former ninja (I didn’t know there were such thing — do you get a good 401k as a retired ninja?) who moves to Los Angeles to run an antique shop with his friend. What he doesn’t know is that his friend is using the antiques as a way to smuggle dope. As more and more thugs start hanging around the shop, Sho starts to catch on that something is up. In order to stop his firestorm of ninja powers, the dope smuggling gangsters kidnap Sho’s son (played by his real son, Kane). So let me get this straight — you have this ninja who you’ve pissed off. And the best thing you can come up with to make him stop hassling you is to kidnap his son? Why would you kidnap a ninja’s son? Don’t they know that will just piss him off more and make him do even more flips than ever before?
Another ninja is called in to kill Sho Kosugi after the shit hits the proverbial fan. Mobsters are getting slashed left and right as Sho seeks revenge and the other ninja just doesn’t give a shit. Big surprise when the other ninja turns out to be Sho’s friend. What was he expecting? I would imagine the society of ninjas is pretty small, even on a global scale, so you get to know all the other ninjas after a while. The finale has Sho and the other ninja storming a high-rise that has been fortified by the mobsters. They kill lots of gun-toting toadies before finally facing off on the roof. Somewhere amid it all, a police office played by Keith Vitali (Wheels on Meals) crawls around wounded in the hallway.
Despite the fact that it contains more cheese than one of those disgusting stuffed crust pizzas, I really like Revenge of the Ninja. I remember the first time I saw it. I was at my grandparent’s house for the weekend. They just got cable TV, and I was up late watching HBO, hoping to catch a glimpse of some boobies or something. Revenge of the Ninja gave me that and so much more. I was going wild, and although I didn’t go out and buy a headband that said “Ninja” on it in that jagged “oriental” typeface (whatever), I was definitely hooked on gory ninja films as much as I was on gory kungfu films. Revenge of the Ninja is tons of fun, with a tremendous body count, fountains of blood, cheap 1980s sex scenes, Kane Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, Sho Kosugi kicking ass on gangsters, dueling ninjas, and pretty much everything else a boy could ask for. The martial arts, which are mostly sword fights, are actually pretty good. The bag o’ ninja tricks each ninja has is more fun than any of that James Bond gadgetry.
Sho Kosugi is a fun hero — the man of peace pushed too far. We don’t see too many of those these days, but they were always my favorite. These days, everyone is all to ready to duke it out and go to war, but Sho demonstrated restraint. Even when faced with physical violence against himself, he held back, partly because he didn’t want to reveal that he was a ninja (as if kicking someone’s ass would make them automatically go, “Shit, that dude must be a ninja!”), but mostly because he believed in peace. Violence was always the final, tragic solution, but when he resigned himself to it, he sure didn’t hold back! A solid 90 minutes of entertainment.