The road that lead me to Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Sabotage was, as is often the case with these things, a somewhat long and circuitous one. It began when I was watching the third Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movie, the Shaw Brothers co-produced The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, on TV, and found my attention drawn to the actor Tony Ferrer, who was playing the fairly substantial supporting role of Shanghai Police Inspector Ramos. Ferrer was certainly charismatic, and handled himself admirably in his action scenes. But what really struck me was that here was a Filipino actor playing a character whom the filmmakers had gone out of their way to identify as Filipino (why, after all, name a Shanghai policeman “Ramos”?).
Given that this was a film in which a pasty-faced Englishman with putty on his eyelids was being sold as Chinese, made at a time when few in the movie business were losing sleep over whether their Asian casting was race or nationality appropriate, this seemed to me like an unusual consideration. Furthermore, while a character such as his would normally have had a pretty limited lifespan in a movie of this type, Ferrer survived to the end of the movie, playing a decidedly heroic role in the climax. These factors combined gave me a strong hunch that, while Tony Ferrer may have been a nobody to a large portion of The Vengeance of Fu Manchu‘s international audience, somewhere he was a big, big star.
With a geek fire of white hot intensity now raging beneath me, I set to digging, and before too long found that Tony Ferrer was indeed a big, big star in the Philippines–and that he was known as “The Filipino James Bond” thanks to his recurring role as secret agent Tony Falcon, Agent X-44. Starting out as a contract player with his older brother Espiridion Laxa’s company Tagalong Ilang Ilang Productions (the company responsible for introducing some of the biggest action stars of Filipino cinema, including Fernando Poe Jr., aka “FPJ”), Ferrer had a fairly undistinguished early career, consisting mostly of supporting roles. This changed in 1965 when his brother developed the Agent X-44 character with him in mind, casting him in the first of a hastily churned out series of films helmed by director and cult film actor Eddie Garcia. Within a year, the Tony Falcon films had become a bona fide phenomenon in the Philippines, and the series would go on to chalk up somewhere around twenty entries, spanning from the mid-sixties to the early eighties.
With this new information turning tantalizing cartwheels in my brain, I was now, of course, dying to see these movies. Unfortunately, I had to steel myself for the probability that this simply would not be possible. Film preservation was a foreign concept to the Philippines until only very recently, and the more distant a film’s vintage, the more likely it is to have long ago returned to the dust from which it came. This is a real shame, because from what I’ve gathered, the Filipino popular film industry of the sixties was very similar to its Turkish counterpart: As prolific as it was impoverished, and with a profligate disregard for copyrights, it churned out hundreds of films a year at a combined cost that would fund one decent-sized Hollywood production, those films loaded with spies and goofy costumed heroes, including undisguised versions of Batman, Robin and Superman. (Not to mention, I imagine, Jesus showing up to make someone bleed out of their eyes or something–because the three things I’ve come to count on from Filipino genre cinema are singing, violence and, wherever you’d least expect it to pop up, jarring evidence of the particularly punitive brand of Catholicism that holds much of the country in its thrall). Despite my pessimism, however, and after a few months of rooting around, the gray market came through for me, and I eventually came into possession of an example of Agent X-44’s impressively voluminous screen output.
The 1966 film Sabotage was not the first Tony Falcon film. In fact, there were at least five other entries in the series produced that same year. But it was the first to launch the series as a true phenomenon, as well as Ferrer’s career as a superstar in his home country. The film premiered at the first Manila Film Festival–a festival dedicated to showcasing the country’s homegrown movie industry–and out-grossed all of the other films on the program. Like pretty much everywhere else in the world, the Philippines was going through a major spy craze at the time, and there would be a number of other film franchises starring super secret agents of their own–Bernard Bonnin as Agent 707, Alberto Alonzo as Agent 69 and Eddie Fernandez as Lagalag among them–but, from the time of Sabotage‘s release on, Tony Falcon was the undisputed box office champ above all.
Of course, I should make clear that the particular Tony Falcon film that I had come into possession of was not, as I had hoped and expected, the original 1966 Sabotage, but rather the re-titled international release of another film from the Tony Falcon series’ waning years, 1978’s Sabotage 2. Furthermore, as is often the case with these things, the currently circulating copy of Sabotage is of a quality similar to what you might expect a broadcast signal intercepted from a very distant planet to look like–given that very distant planet is very dark and perhaps underwater. So, while I was looking forward to tasting a new flavor of 1960s secret agent cool–or, at least, a woefully underfunded and technically over-matched facsimile of same–I now had to resign myself to the fact that what I was actually going to be tasting was something quite different and probably a lot less savory.
Or perhaps not. Because Sabotage is indeed a rich slab of nada-budget cinematic cheese. Ferrer was sporting a noticeable paunch by this time, a state of affairs that Tony Falcon’s trademark white suits did little to improve upon. Still the actor is commendably game, always ready to dole out some spirited faux kung fu whenever the action requires. But what’s most impressive about Sabotage is how, by way of its by-necessity minimalism and utilitarian aesthetic, it manages to strip the spy movie down to its essential elements, leaving us with what is basically a Roadrunner cartoon featuring people in suits and bikinis.
The film’s action begins with a team of hired killers–a couple guys with mustaches, a hot chick, and an afro sporting, smooth talking Jim Kelly wannabe–discussing their intention to assassinate a visiting Latin American diplomat. After that we’re immediately into the first assassination attempt, and from there to the arrival on the scene of the resplendently pompadoured Tony Falcon, who chases down the assassins in his car, doles out some faux fu and shoots at them. Another assassination attempt, in which Tony saves the diplomat from an exploding horse on a polo field, follows right on the heels of the first one, and then another, all leading to more chasing and shooting–and all, interestingly, played out with very little dialog. In fact, we don’t hear Tony utter more than two isolated lines at a time until the final twenty minutes of the picture. What dialog there is, however, is all uttered in heavily accented English, rather than Tagalog as I had expected.
Once it’s determined that they’re not going to be able to assassinate the visiting Latin American diplomat with Tony Falcon showing up to chase and shoot at them all the time, the hired killers decide that they should start trying to assassinate Tony Falcon instead. What follows is a series of set pieces in which we get to see what Tony Falcon does in his free time. While most movie secret agents seem to cool their heels by lounging in swanky cocktail lounges, what Tony appears to be doing here is attending a series of wedding receptions that are complete with buffets and awkward, seemingly obligatory ballroom dancing. Then we see him waterskiing with one of his gal pals and, later, golfing. All of these activities, of course, are interrupted by the killers showing up to shoot bullets at Tony through scope rifles, after which he chases, fu’s and shoots at them. These scenes also afford us an opportunity to marvel at some of Tony’s high-tech spy gadgetry, including some X-Ray Specs that work just as advertised, rendering everyone they gaze upon naked while having no effect upon the strategically placed furniture and foliage that hides their nasties.
Finally we are introduced to Dr. Ivan Skovsky (Mike Cohen), a super villain who sits in a control room staffed by women in bikinis and men in orange jumpsuits, considerately making calls at regular intervals to an army officer named Campos to explain his motivations for doing all of the things he’s having the hired killers do. These motivations, however, don’t seem very well thought out–or, at least, Skovsky doesn’t appear to be very committed to them. At first he want to assassinate the diplomat and extort just a bit of the Philippines’ gold reserves. Then he wants to extort all of the Philippines’ gold reserves under threat of him launching all kinds of nuclear missiles at the Philippines. When asked the very reasonable question of why he’s interested in the Filipinos’ gold in particular, he answers that he’s not so much interested in the gold itself as he is in sending a message to the world that he means business. He figures that, once he has either extorted all of the Philippines’ gold or annihilated the Philippines with all of his nuclear weapons, the rest of the world will simply lay down at his feet. This plan makes Skovsky come off more like a super-bully that a super-villain. After all, if you have to make an example of a country, why pick on one as poor and already troubled as the Philippines? It just doesn’t seem very sporting.
Eventually, by means of donning a fake beard, Tony Falcon gains entry into Skovsky’s secret compound, setting Sabotage‘s spectacular climax in motion. Because Sabotage is a zero-budget action film, this will involve a lot of helicopters–or, more accurately, one helicopter playing a bunch of different helicopters–because nothing says “production value” like a helicopter. This leads to one of my favorite out of all the helicopter-related, zero-budget action film scenarios, in which someone fires a handgun at an airborne helicopter and it explodes like it was made entirely of atom bombs. After that comes the paratrooper assault, which is accomplished by having exactly two guys dressed as paratroopers filmed from various angles and in different locations to give the appearance of being many. Finally, with these items ticked off the list of things you need in a spy movie, a model of the villain’s compound is blown up and we’re free to go home.
Just a couple of years after making Sabotage, Tony Ferrer would star in his final Tony Falcon feature, a team-up with Fernando Poe Jr. titled The Eagle and The Falcon. After that he would only revisit the character by way of cameo roles in other films that served as either direct references or knowing-but-vague homages, in both cases reflecting the enduring affection with which Agent X-44 was regarded by the Filipino movie-going public. The first of these was when Ferrer played the boss of Weng Weng–that leathery, pocket-sized star of both Filipino action cinema and my most disturbing nightmares–in For Y’ur Height Only, a fact which should clue people in that Weng Weng’s Agent 00, with his blinding white suits, was as much an affectionate spoof of Tony Falcon as he was of James Bond. More recently, Ferrer reprised the Tony Falcon role in a 2007 comedic update of the character appropriately titled Agent X-44, in which he passed the torch to young star Vhong Navarro (who also starred in the Spider-Man spoof, Gagamboy). All of this is evidence that Ferrer has left a deep imprint on his country’s popular culture and, while I have no doubt that his status is well deserved, it will take far more than a viewing of Sabotage alone to fully explain it.
To be honest, I would rather not have watched Sabotage. But to its credit, it didn’t completely kill my desire to see some of the earlier entries in the Agent X-44 series. While the Tony Ferrer who’s on display in this particular example doesn’t present the most suave and sophisticated of secret agents, he is thoroughly likeable, and there’s something in his manner that suggests perhaps an echo of something more fabulous. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed and hope that some day, if the gray market gods are willing, that murky, garbled artifact that is the nth generation bootleg of the genuine Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Sabotage will make its way into my eager hands. Hey, nothing is beyond your reach when you dare to dream.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: Philippines | Starring: Tony Ferrer, Azenith Briones, Olivia O’Hara, Mike Cohen, Charlie Davao, Alex Bolado, Romy Diaz, Jim Gaines, Val Iglesias, Ramon Revilla, Nick Romano, Rey Sagum | Director: Efren C. Pinon | Cinematographer: Juanito “Jun” Pereira | Music: Ernani Cuenco | Producer: Margarita Productions | Alternate Titles: Sabotage 2