Enter the Eagles

This is one of those DVDs that has been sitting around on my shelves for years, and it’s always on that list of “things I should just sit down and watch this week but then they never get watched.” Well, now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, my initial impression is that I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long, but in a way I’m glad I did. I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long because it was pretty fun; and I’m glad I let it sit around for so long, because watching it now, so long after the fact, it was like a visit from an old friend, provided that friend is “the way they used to make Hong Kong action films in the 80s and early 90s.” No CGI (well, no CGI fights), minimal wirework, actors who are better fighters than they are actors — man, I miss this stuff. Oh yeah, and Shannon Lee fights Benny Urquidez. In an exploding blimp.

But let’s begin at the beginning, or at least what will pass as the beginning for our purposes here. First of all, this movie has a pretty impressive Hong Kong action pedigree. Director Cory Yuen was one of the “Seven Little Fortunes,” the group of Peking Opera students that included, among others, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Yuen Wah. I’m going to assume that readers of Teleport City know who these guys are. If you don’t know, then you best turn your computer off and go watch Project A, Dragons Forever, Young Master, Prodigal Boxer, and Eastern Condors. We’ll still be here when you get back. Cory Yuen proved himself an able enough actor in supporting roles, but it was behind the camera, as director, that Yuen really found his calling. Although he doesn’t have what you might call a recognizable style of direction, what he does do is put the camera in the right place and let the actors do their thing. Few directors were able to shoot the breakneck style of 80s action they way Cory Yuen could.

His first martial arts directing job in 1982 with Tower of the Death, retitled Game of Death II and turned into an even more outrageously shameless Bruce Lee exploitation film than the first Game of Death. What gets lost beneath all the Bruce Lee exploitation, however, is the fact that Tower of Death is actually pretty damn good. If you disconnect it from the clones of Bruce Lee movies that plagued the 70s and 80s, then you can appreciate the film for its own merits, which are considerable. From there, Yuen went on to direct a string of what are considered some of the very best and defining Hong Kong action films of the 1980s, including Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, Yes Madam, Righting Wrongs, Dragons Forever, Blonde Fury, and She Shoots Straight. From the very first, Yuen’s talent really seemed to be for bringing out the very best in female fighters. Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, and Joyce Godenzi were all at the very top of their game under Yuen’s solid guidance.

At the same time, he became one of the very first of the big names to attempt with some success to cross over into the American market. No Retreat, No Surrender may not be a great film, but it was a well-known movie that pretty much everyone rented at some point. It’s most notable, of course, for introducing the world to Jean Claude Van Damme. I know, I know…his big screen debut was actually as the knee-squeezing gay kickboxer with a keen sportscar in Forever Monaco, or as the dayglo spandex wearing dancer on the beach in Breakin’, but No Retreat No Surrender is the first time Van Damme got to sell himself as some sort of a martial arts bad-ass, albeit a Russian one.

In the 1990s, Yuen made the switch from straight-forward action to the wire-laden fantasy kungfu that became so popular during that decade, and while many fans lamented the passing of the 80s style of stunt-heavy, wire-free insanity, Yuen never the less continued to crank out a string of mega-hits, starting with the two Savior of the Soul films but really kicking into high gear once he teamed with the 1990s ruler of the martial world, Jet Li. Cory Yuen directed Li in a slew of fan favorites, including two Fong Sai-yuk films, Bodyguard from Beijing (which I thought was awful), New Legend of Shaolin (Jet Li does a kungfu version of Lone Wolf and Cub), and My Father is a Hero (featuring the infamous “tie my kid to a rope and use him like a kungfu yo-yo” scene). It was round about that time, unfortunately, that the bottom fell out of the Hong Kong movie industry. Action films were hit especially hard. They quickly fell out of style, and most of the beloved stars of the 80s and 90s were too old or just too beat up to sustain that style of film making. In addition, a number of the most beloved female stars of the action genre either retired or left Hong Kong to pursue film making elsewhere. And suddenly Hong Kong realized that there were no new Jackie Chans or Michelle Yeohs waiting in the wings, no matter how hard they tried to convince us that Stephen Fung and Nicolas Tse were awesome. Things just weren’t the same.

But Yuen soldiered on, and the less he could depend on his actors for solid martial arts action, the more he depended on special effects. 1998’s Enter the Eagles would be the last film he’d make (for a while, anyway) featuring a cast of able fighters relying on their own skills and the time-tested 80s style of action filmmaking. A couple years later, he would make the special effects laden flop Avenging Fist, originally meant to be a Tekken (some fighting video game) film until someone realized they forgot to actually buy the rights to make a Tekken film. After that, Yuen once again found cross-over success in America with The Transporter, starring Jason Statham, then returned to Hong Kong to resurrect the moribund “Girls with Guns” genre so popular in the 90s. The result was So Close, and while it’s hardly Yes Madam or Righting Wrongs in terms of the quality of legitimate kungfu choreography, it’s still a damn fun film.

And since he apparently learned nothing from Avenging Fist, Yuen tried his hand a video-game adaptation movie again in 2006, this time with the American film DOA. But we’ll talk about that one soon enough.

If Enter the Eagles is Yuen’s old school swan song (and that’s only if you consider the 1990s old school, which they really aren’t), then at least he aligned a proper set of players for the going away party. Anita Yuen was one of the most ubiquitous faces in 1990s Hong Kong cinema, though that industry’s flavor of the week attitude with many of its female stars meant that she went from A-list megastar to B-list mainstay pretty quickly. But she cut her teeth in dramas like Cie La Vie, Mon Cherie, and comedies like Tsui Hark’s Chinese Feast and Stephen Chow’s Bond film send-up From Beijing with Love, as well as showing up to do nothing in the Jackie Chan film Thunderbolt. By 1998, she wasn’t exactly in demand, but western fans of HK films still adored her, and I was certainly happy to see her back in action, even if she’s not exactly believable as an action star. What she lacks in action cred, though, she certainly makes up for in genuine acting ability.

And then there is Jordan Chan, one of the most promising young stars of the latter half of the 1990s, part of what I like to call the Hong Kong Triad Brat Pack — that group of young actors who all made names for themselves starring in Young and Dangerous movies. Those films were the bane of my existence when they first came out, largely because it seems like a new one came out every other week, and all of a sudden all anyone was making was “young triad dude” movies. I actually quite like most of them now, and even when I didn’t, I liked Jordan Chan. He was a good actor and he had genuine charisma, unlike Triad Brat Pack compatriot Ekin Cheng, who had great hair but not much else. I don’t think Chan’s ever gotten material that was up to his ability, but I’ve never the less enjoyed a lot of his movies, including several that no one else seems to enjoy (like Downtown Torpedoes, which is marginally less plausible a story than Enter the Eagles).

Both Yuen and Chan deliver pretty much all their dialog in Cantonese, allowing for them to escape the awkwardness of having to perform in a language they don’t understand. Of course, this means that people speak Cantonese to English speakers, and vice versa, without any indication that they are speaking different languages. Sort of like how Han Solo can understand Wookie, and Chewbacca can understand English, but you never hear Han speaking Wookie or Chewbacca speaking English.

But Anita and Jordan are only the supporting players here. It became increasingly popular through the late 1990s to “internationalize” Hong Kong action films, most likely because the market for action films was so awful in Hong Kong, but interest in the films was still on the rise in the United States as guys like John Woo and Yuen Wo-ping (no relation to either Cory Yuen or Anita Yuen, who also are not related to one another. Cory Yuen’s real last name isn’t even Yuen) crossed over into quasi-mainstream recognition (meaning that anyone who paid close attention to movies knew about them, as opposed to just anyone who paid close attention to Hong Kong movies). Unfortunately for Hong Kong, their attempts to internationalize their action films involved two steps: 1) hire a guy who speaks some English to write a bunch of English dialog for the movie, and 2) hire some no-name Caucasian actors to deliver the dialog, or make your Hong Kong cast do phonetic memorization. The end results are, at their best, laughable. The bad writing and amateurish delivery actually did more to keep films from achieving cross-over success. The Caucasian actors were really bad, and many times what passes for understandable sounding English dialog from and to non-English speakers is nearly unintelligible to native English speakers.

Ringo Lam’s Undeclared War was one of the very early efforts using this model, but that was too early. The first real international efforts came in the form of films all having to do with Jackie Chan: Rumble in the Bronx, Who Am I (both starring Chan), First Strike, Mr. Nice Guy, and the Chan produced Gen-Y Cops. Rumble achieved a decent degree of success, thanks to a domestic theatrical release and some good stunt work, but the film was never taken seriously (and doesn’t really deserve to be) thanks to the horrible acting from the Caucasian cast, the completely ludicrous portrayal of Bronx street gangs (they are multi-racial, ride around in dune buggies covered with Christmas lights, and live in giant warehouses filled with pinball machines and refrigerators), and the fact that they try to pass Vancouver off as New York City, even though you can see the Rocky Mountains int he background. It was good enough for other markets, but the film’s targeted American audience just didn’t buy it.

Similarly, First Strike and subsequent stabs by Chan at Hong Kong produced international hits, like Mr. Nice Guy and Who Am I, failed to garner much of an audience (though I personally like them a lot) because the English dialog and English acting is so bad. when a non-native speaker like Jackie Chan is still your best English-language actor in a film, you’re chances of being anything but smirked at by English-speaking audiences is pretty small. Chan wouldn’t really achieve American super-stardom until he stopped trying to make cross-over films and just made American films like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon.

The results of Hong Kong attempts to internationalize through sticking more English in their films were, as stated, as bad as you would expect. In the case of the writers, none of them were native English speakers, and their command of the nuances of language one needs to write a script in that language was simply not up to the task. Thus you get a lot of really weird, awkward dialog that uses English words and approximates English without actually being English. People say really stupid things in ways no actual English speaker would say them. Making matters worse was the fact that the Caucasian actors the film hired were, by and large, dreadful. From time to time, they would score an actual B-movie actor (Mark Dacascos, Coolio), but their delivery of the awkward dialog is just as bad. I often wondered why these native English speakers, even if they were bad actors, didn’t correct the dialog as they went, but I’ve since learned that many of them tried, only to draw the ire of writers and directors insisting that they quit deviating from the way things had been written.

Similarly, Hong Kong started turning to the increasing number of foreign-born Chinese actors looking to make it in the Hong Kong film industry (Daniel Wu, Maggie Q, et cetera). Some of them were awful actors, and some of them were good, and some of them started out bad and got better (like Wu). Most had the benefit of being able to deliver dialog in either Cantonese or English with ease, but that still didn’t help the scripts any, and the result was that even the good films weren’t taken seriously as they undercut themselves with such weird, artificial dialog.

But there were still a lot of them being made in this fashion, and if you can roll with the short-comings of the scripts, a lot of the films are pretty good, or if not good, at least enjoyable,a dnt hat’s always been far more important to me. Enter the Eagles, for examples, suffers all these woes, but the movie itself remains stupidly enjoyable. In this case, the Caucasian actors include a bunch of stuntmen who are really awful actors, Shannon Lee (daughter of Bruce), Benny Urquidez, and Michael Wong.

Now Shannon Lee is the film’s main attraction, but in discussing the cast I’m going to start with Michael Wong. I love Michael Wong. I think I may have said it somewhere else before, but if any actor in the world was going to be the spokesmen for and embodiment of Teleport City, it’s Michael Wong. This guy has been making movies — lots of movies — for decades now. And he is still an awful actor, as bad as he was the first time he ever appeared on screen. He works hard at his craft; he just doesn’t get any better. Which is sort of how Teleport City is. We work hard, we really do put some effort into this thing, but after nearly a decade of doing it, I’m not really any better at it than I was when I first started, and despite how many people may read this site, we remain relatively respect-free. We rarely get screeners or comp review copies (in fact, in almost ten years, we’ve gotten four, two of which were awful “day in the life of a serial killer” shot on video stinkers); we don’t get invited to attend or speak at premieres, festivals, or conventions; we don’t get book deals; we don’t get quoted on DVD covers or asked to write liner notes. We remain and probably always will be the Michael Wong of movie websites. But then, Michael Wong got to have a naked Ellen Chan grinding up and down on him, and we’ve yet to achieve that, so we’re actually one below Michael Wong.

Suffice it to say that I think hanging out with Michael Wong would be cool. He probably has a ton of great stories, and even though I have repeatedly said he’s not a very good actor, I still like him and I like a lot of the movies he’s done. If I could hang out with any veteran of the Hong Kong movie scene, it would be Michael Wong. You might assume it would be Maggie Cheung, but as much as I might crush on her, it’d be way too nerve-wracking. With Michael, I could just sit back, drink some beers, smoke a cigar, and let him tell stories about all the crazy shit he’s seen and endured over his years making movies. And while Wong isn’t who you think of when you think of Hong Kong veterans, he still is a Hong Kong veteran and an early pioneer at speaking English when everyone expects the cast to be speaking Chinese.

Accompanying Wong and lending even more old-school cred to the movie is Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a welcome face from the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema. Urquidez, who was famous for being an incredible fighter and being one of the creepiest looking gwailo in Hong Kong films (often described as a horrifying amalgamation of Ozzy Osbourne and Christian Slater), was recruited to match up with Jackie Chan in two of the best action films of the 80s — Dragons Forever and Wheels on Meals (another early attempt from jackie Chan to internationalize his films), both also starring Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung. The fights in these two movies between Chan and Urquidez are often named by fight film aficionados as two of the best scenes ever filmed.

Like many of the Western fighters who made names for themselves in Hong Kong — Richard Norton and Cynthia Rothrock being the two most notable — Urquidez was never able to extend his career to much success in the West, where the directors just didn’t know how to direct him the way Sammo Hung or Cory Yuen did. He found pretty steady work as a choreographer, though. It’s been years since I last saw Urquidez in front of the camera, and having him pop up in Enter the Eagles as the main heavy is a welcome return for an old, scary face.

And finally there’s Shannon Lee. Her film career, spotty and minimal though it may be, became the source of a fair amount of controversy among people prone to generating controversy over Shannon Lee, with many claiming that she only got parts because she was Bruce Lee’s daughter. I’m sure being the daughter of the Dragon and the sister of Bandon helped open doors, as did the fact that she’s pretty cute, but once she was through the door, it was up to her to live or die by her own merits. Criticism that she didn’t have any real fighting skill is patently ridiculous. Neither did many of the people who became kungfu stars. Michelle Yeoh was a dancer, for instance, and Joyce Godenzi was a beauty queen. What matters — all that matters — is what Shannon Lee did once she got the part, and what she did was try really damn hard. Although the era of “no stunt doubles” was a thing of the past by the 1990s, Lee still did most of her own fighting and stuntwork, being doubled only for the especially acrobatic and flip-heavy shots. She worked out extensively with Urquidez, and busted her ass to learn the moves she’d need to appear as a credible force on-screen.

And she does well. She looks natural and comfortable in the action scenes and moves fast and gracefully while never lackign the illusion of power behind her punches and kicks. She is helped along both by her training with Uriquidez and by Cory Yuen’s panache for shooting and editing non-fighters to look like believable on-screen bad-asses (and somehow make fights comprised mostly of posing still seem fast-paced and action-packed). Her acting is stilted, thanks in equal parts to inexperience and bad dialog, but she has a natural on-screen charisma that is far more reminiscent of her dad than any of the half-witted calls for her to actually mimic her dad (which include making “Bruce Lee face” while ripping a guy’s hair out and blowing it in his face). I was able to buy her immediately as a smirking, kungfu powered assassin.

The rest of the Caucasian cast is comprised of guys whose names you won’t know unless you know a lot of stuntmen and fight choreographers. Thisis because most of them are stuntmen and fight choreographers, and while that means they know how to handle themselves in the action scenes, the film is perhaps ill advised to have given them so much dialog.

Somewhere amid all this is a plot, though to be honest, the less attention you pay to that plot, the more you will enjoy this movie. What we have here is a heist film in which two groups of thieves — Michael Wong’s highly trained group, and the rag-tag duo of Jordan Chan and Anita Yuen — are after the same diamond. Wong wants to sell it to Urquidez, who in turn will fence it to a really white looking sheik in a fake mustache and goatee. Chan and Yuen want to steal it to show up Wong, who snubbed them when they somehow magically figured out what Wong was planning and how they could find him. Obviously, things go horribly awry, allowing for the film to dispense with plot and go hog wild with outrageous action scenes.

To say the film isn’t entirely believable is a gross understatement. Nothing presented in this movie is the least bit plausible, from the ridiculous schemes to steal the diamond to the extended shoot-out and rescue set in a police station (where, among other things, Michael Wong stymies an entire platoon of well-armed riot cops by throwing a potted plant at them), to the finale in an out-of-control luxury blimp (!), but then, Cory Yuen and Hong Kong action films have never been the place to go for solid scripting and plausible events. The heist in particular seems ridiculously easy, and I wish that action films all over the world featuring a heist would stop relying on the hoary old cliche of having the security be a bunch of goof-offs who fall asleep or get distracted by soccer games on television, or just don’t make the most basic and obvious of logical connections. For instance, if you are guarding the world’s most expensive diamond, and the alarm starts going haywire at the exact same moment there’s a mysterious car wreck outside, with a couple of doctors appearing out of nowhere, the most obvious course of action is probably not to disable all the alarms around the diamond then have everyone run outside to stand around.

One would also think that, if a thief is caught in the diamond enclosure during the heist, then his claim that “those other people took the diamond” wouldn’t be accepted at face value, and that you might, at the very least, search him. But then, you’d also think there’s not many places you can hide a giant diamond when you’re wearing a skintight cat burglar outfit. Or that the police, upon arresting you, might make you put on different clothes and thus find the diamond even if they didn’t bother to search you for it. But none of that happens here, allowing the film to segue into a completely outrageous and even less believable rescue from the police department, which begins with no one noticing an unauthorized helicopter landing on the roof of the police station and disgorging a lot of heavily armed people in tough looking black combat gear.

Unfettered by the mooring lines of logic, Yuen allows Enter the Eagles to soar like the out-of-control luxury blimp that will serve as the location for the finale. Shannon Lee gets to beat the crap out of a lot of people and pose with guns (sometimes, unfortunately, held sideways, because that’s what people did in the 90s), and there are tons of shoot-outs, including the aforementioned police station setpiece, which ends up being a near thirty-minute long over-the-top action blow-out that includes tons of shooting, kungfu, car chases, people being dragged around on metal ladders dangling from helicopters, and lots of stuff blowing up before our heroes finally make their escape on, of all things, a slow-moving public trolley, where no one seems concerned about the group of heavily armed and bleeding people who just clambered on then got off a stop later without the cops noticing they’re carrying guns and wearing body armor. But whatever, the whole sequence is pretty great, and I’ve certainly enjoyed even less plausible scenarios.

The movie attempts to outdo itself during the finale in the blimp, in which Shannon Lee and Benny Urquidez get to shine and steal the show as they engage in a lengthy fight throughout the blimp as it explodes and falls apart around them. It’s not Jackie Chan vs. Urquidez, but it’s a damn good fight scene. Somewhere in the maelstrom, Michael Wong smokes cigars and punches people, and Anita Yuen hangs upside down and shoots machine guns. She’s not the least bit believable as someone who could beat someone else up, but Yuen seems to recognize this, and so instead has the scrawny gal just blow the crap out of anything that moves. When she does engage in fisticuffs, it’s with an opponent she obviously couldn’t beat, and so after having her thrown around a little, the movie just sort of wanders off and pretends the whole thing isn’t happening, returning to it every now and then to show her still going toe-to-toe with the guy despite the fact that there’s no way it could have lasted that long.

The final result is a pretty fun action film, even if it’s a “bad” film. The dialog is silly and poorly delivered by just about everyone, and people trade lines in Cantonese and English as if they were the same language. But Anita Yuen and Jordan Chan are both good actors (although Jordan is underused here), and Wong and Lee are bad actors with a lot of charisma that compensates for their short-comings. And Benny the Jet is Benny the Jet, looking creepy as ever but obviously having a lot of fun with one of the meatier villain roles he’s ever gotten (previously, he never had more than a line or two of dialog). Cory Yuen’s direction is crisp and keeps the movie moving along at a fast pace, which makes the obvious weakness of the script easier to ignore. Shot in and around Prague, the film manages to achieve that international feel location-wise, and Yuen never misses an opportunity to indulge in a little sight-seeing. Although the film is shot on the typical cheap Hong Kong budget, it achieves the look and feel of a much more expensive film.

The action is largely CGI-free, though the movie does throw in some pretty lame looking CGI explosions. The fights belong to Shannon and Benny, with Michael standing on the sidelines waiting to cold-cock someone if they need it. He’s never been a kungfu star, so his action is largely relegated to shoot-outs and a couple straight-up fist fights, which he has always handled well. I think Shannon Lee proves she has the stuff it takes to be a legitimate action star. She can always improve her acting (unless Michael Wong is her teacher, I guess). With the right director and an on-set mentor like Urquidez, she easily rises to the level of many of the best fighting femmes. I’d love to see more of her in films like this.

So yeah — Enter the Eagles. There are no eagles in it, and the acting and writing are nothing to highlight in your acting or writing class, but the cast is fun, the action is plentiful, and everything moves along nicely. I had a lot of fun watching it, and in the end, that’s really all that ever matters to me.