Dynamite Johnson is pretty much a textbook example of a filmmaker proving his exploitation acumen by making the most of both his resources and concept. “What textbook?,” I hear you ask. “Where can I get it? Will I be tested on this?” Shut up. No such book exists. But if it did, you could certainly do worse than having Filipino producer, director and writer Bobby Suarez as its author.
Dynamite Johnson was the third film to be turned out by Suarez’s BAS Film Productions, following closely on the heels of 1977’s The Bionic Boy and the next year’s They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong. Both of the previous films were completed with the financial participation of Singaporean wrestling-promoter-turned-independent-film-producer Sunny Lim, and, while they were primarily Filipino productions, they made concessions to the Singaporean market by drawing from that country’s talent pool for their titular stars. In the case of The Bionic Boy, that star was a 9 year old Singaporean Karate champion by the name of Johnson Yap, and in Cleopatra Wong‘s it was an 18 year old typist-turned-fledgling-martial-arts-star named Doris Young, who was summarily rechristened Marrie Lee in order to encourage those all-important Bruce Lee associations.
Now, Cleopatra Wong has been covered elsewhere on Teleport City, so I won’t go into much detail about it here. Suffice it to say, for the benefit of the short of memory, that it’s the one in which an Asian chick dressed as a nun blows away a bunch of guys — who are also dressed as nuns – in slow motion using a four-barreled, sawed-off shotgun. (See? Now it’s all coming back, isn’t it?) As for The Bionic Boy, it is, in true high-concept fashion, exactly what its title suggests: an attempt to knock-off the wildly popular American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, but with the added gimmick of having a child as its protagonist. Also, because of Johnson Yap’s martial arts pedigree, Suarez and company further grafted that concept onto the standard revenge plot of the typical Hong Kong kung fu film of the day.
In brief, Yap plays Johnson Lee in that film, a young Singaporean lad whose vacation in the Philippines goes horribly wrong when a bunch of New York mobsters use a bulldozer to crush the car that he, his mother, and his Interpol agent dad are riding in. Only Johnson survives this attack, though just barely, prompting a wealthy friend of his father’s to order an international team of bionic experts to “give him the works”, as it were. As a result, the boy comes out from under the knife with a variety of cyber-enhanced super powers, all of which are realized via the same combination of “ch-ch-ch” synthesizer effects and cheesy slow motion used in the TV series. (As I understand it, Universal, the copyright holders of The Six Million Dollar Man, actually tried to sue over the similarities between The Bionic Boy and their property, but were ultimately unsuccessful.) Young Johnson then sets out to exact bloody-minded revenge against those responsible for his parents’ deaths, leading to a bunch of fairly enjoyable scenes in which you get to see a little kid kicking full-grown men off cliffs and whatnot.
To be honest, I’ve neglected to write up The Bionic Boy before this point because, to me, its flaws somewhat overwhelm its novelty value, which actually in itself isn’t that considerable. For one thing, if you want to see a really weird Southeast Asian knock-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, I’d suggest you instead turn to Sompote Sands’ Computer Superman, a hybrid of science fiction and Thai folklore in which the hero’s bionic transformation is necessitated by his bleeding to death after having his tail cut off. There’s also a guy whose superpower is that his nose emits prodigious amounts of super-adhesive snot. And now that I’m thinking about it, if it’s scenes of kung fu-adept little kids gruesomely killing full-grown men that you’re after, I’d recommend instead the Taiwanese fantasy wuxia Dwarf Sorcerer, in which the blade-happy protagonist looks to be about five years old.
But really my main problems with The Bionic Boy were two in number. One was that its pacing – especially given that it was ostensibly an action film — was a bit draggy, a fault which cannot entirely be blamed on Suarez, given that he was not the film’s director, as he was in the case of both Cleopatra Wong and Dynamite Johnson. (Batman Fights Dracula director Leody Diaz was at the helm in this instance.) The other is that the English dub of The Bionic Boy provides Yap with one of those squeaky little girl voices that you get when you have a subpar adult voiceover artist trying to supply the voice of child. This provides for a fair share of hilarity when the stern-faced Yap is delivering lines like, “I had no choice; it was kill or be killed!” But otherwise it quickly becomes grating.
Fortunately, the looping crew do more justice to Yap in Dynamite Johson, giving him a voice more appropriate to a precociously scrappy ten year old. Which is to say that, yes, Dynamite Johnson is indeed a sequel to The Bionic Boy, but it is also much, much more than that. For Dynamite Johnson is also a sequel to Cleopatra Wong. Now, whether this means that both films were only successful enough to merit half a sequel each, or that Suarez just wanted to hedge his bets by including Cleopatra Wong to give this second Bionic Boy vehicle an extra push, I’m not sure. But the fact is that, despite the film’s title – which in some markets was simply The Return of the Bionic Boy – the finished product is as much or more of a showcase for Marrie Lee’s high-kicking character as it is for Johnson Yap. And that’s far from a bad thing. In fact, it accounts for Dynamite Johnson, despite some considerable flaws, being almost greater than the sum of its parts. Almost.
Dynamite Johnson accomplishes the linkage between Johnson Lee and Cleopatra Wong, neither of whom had any part in the other’s previous screen venture, by the simple device of establishing Cleo as the younger hero’s aunt. As the story begins, we find Johnson back in the Philippines, under the supervision of his Auntie Cleo, having a tune-up done on his various bionic bits. One night, while in the hospital, his bionic hearing picks up the sound of a burn patient in a nearby ward, raving about being attacked by some kind of fire-breathing dragon. Johnson follows the sound, only to witness the patient being spirited away by a couple of goons disguised as orderlies.
Now, we’ve already gotten a glimpse of this storied “dragon” during the film’s prologue, and I have to say that it is the one thing, above anything else, that provides Dynamite Johnson‘s “hook”. That is, it’s one of the first things that anyone telling you about the film will mention, as well as the thing that will make you, weeks after seeing the film, look back upon it as being perhaps a lot more enjoyable than it really was, and even prompt you to watch it again. So, just as the characters inhabiting Dynamite Johnson are well advised to do, I will also advise you, its viewer, to beware the dragon. As far as that creature’s appearance, for now I will only say that the nighttime sequence at the film’s beginning shows it off to much better advantage than in the climax, when it is seen in the unforgiving light of day. It is in inspiration a descendant of the fearsome dragon tank from Dr. No, but in execution looks a lot more like an especially laughable parade float.
Anyway, Johnson hitches a ride on the roof of the ambulance in which the unnamed burn patient is being abducted, ending up at a warehouse where a gang of crooks, after viciously interrogating the burned man to see what secrets he’s divulged, discuss plans for some kind of drop-off that is to take place at a waterfront location the following day. Johnson returns to the hospital to tell Cleo of what he has discovered, only to find her more in auntie mode than kickass lady spy mode. She scoffs at his story and tells him that it was just a dream, prompting him to sneak off to the docks by himself the next day to intercept the crooks. A bionic-boy-on-criminal-cronies smack-down then ensues, ending with Johnson making off with the mysterious metal case that the thugs were intending to exchange.
That case, when opened, is revealed to contain uranium, which, when revealed to the Filipino authorities, prompts them to press Cleopatra into service. Reluctantly, Cleo calls in her fellow Interpol agent Ben Deleon (The One Armed Executioner star Chito Guerrero, reprising his role from Cleopatra Wong) to look after her nephew while she goes off in search of the substance’s source. With her role as babysitter and boringly no-nonsense voice of adult authority behind her, she is now free to be the Cleopatra Wong with whom we are so happily familiar, doling out high-legged kicks, rocking a nifty combination crossbow/grenade launcher and hanging from helicopters, all while wearing a series of wonderfully impractical outfits and accessories, including, at one point, a particularly ridiculous looking afro wig.
Ultimately, the trail leads to a uranium mine in the Northern Philippines lorded over by a peroxide blonde, eye patch-wearing Nazi by the name of Herr Kunst. Just exactly what Kunst’s Nazi affiliations or credentials are is never made clear – whether he’s an actual descendant of the Third Reich or just an overzealous enthusiast along the lines of an unhinged Civil War re-creator – but the fact remains that he has the uniform and the big swastika on the wall to support his title, even if his minions don’t. Those poor souls are stuck with suffering through the jungle heat in those type of knit ski masks that have little balls on the top, along with track suits. Anyway, the reason that Kunst is mining all of this uranium is in order that he may build a death ray which he plans to use to blow up Hong Kong — a coup that would not only raise the profile of the Philippines as a producer of kung fu films considerably, but also, in Kunst’s estimation, place the rest of the world in the palm of his hand.
Needless, to say that, while Cleopatra has been busy tending to Herr Kunst , her nephew has been bristling at being sidelined from the action, and has managed to nose his way into plenty of trouble on his own. This eventually leads to both of our heroes ending up at the uranium mine at the same time, setting the stage for exactly the type of protracted climactic siege that caps off any Filipino action film worth its salt, rife with exploding huts and people falling in slow motion from guard towers and parapets after being riddled with machinegun bullets.
There is plenty to like about Dynamite Johnson. For one, there’s Marrie Lee, who here radiates the same low-key charm that she exhibited in Cleopatra Jones. As for her costar, while it’s hard to gauge his acting per se, Johnson Yap does a good job of projecting a junior version of the grim intensity that was the standard demeanor for the adult martial arts stars of the day, and really works hard to make credible his takedowns of his elder opponents. He is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that both the fight choreography and the manner in which the fights are shot in the film mark a vast improvement over both The Bionic Boy and Cleopatra Wong, and do Lee and Yap the service of making their prowess as martial artists seem that much more believable.
Unfortunately, Dynamite Johnson suffers greatly from a nagging flaw that was also well in evidence in both of its predecessors. And that is its embrace of an approach to editing that would seem to be anathema to the very idea of action cinema, evidenced in an apparent aversion to jump cuts and fadeouts that insures that every action that takes place on screen, no matter how incidental, must be seen from it’s very inception to its absolute conclusion, and in real time (or, in some cases, slow motion). The most egregious example of this that I can think of takes place in The Bionic Boy, in the middle of an already overlong scene in which the villain is explaining his not-all-that-complex grand scheme to his minions. Just when you think he’s finally wrapping it up, he asks one of those minions to set up a screen for a slideshow, after which we watch silently as that underling goes through the entire process of fetching and clumsily setting up the screen.
I realize that to some extent this practice is born of a desire to pad out the film’s running time, but, to me, it seems as much the result of an attitude like that of an over-excited home movie enthusiast who just can’t bare to leave any form of activity uncaptured. Thus, it is never sufficient for Dynamite Johnson to just show us a helicopter taking off, but we must also watch it make its entire slow ascent to cruising altitude. Likewise, when Cleopatra Wong has to climb down a long length of rope to disembark from said helicopter – an action that other films would have communicated in a few quick cuts – we instead have to watch the entire slow and arduous process, and from various angles. Granted, I understand that the intention in that case may well have been to show us that it was, in fact, Marrie Lee — who did all of her own stunts in these films — who was making that climb. But that doesn’t make the end result, or the pacing of the film as a whole, any less exasperating.
At the end of Dynamite Johnson, Herr Kunst, seeing that his plans have been scuttled by our heroes, tries to make a break for it in his diabolical dragon tank, hoping to, in the process, dispatch those heroes by means of the numerous machineguns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers that the dragon comes equipped with. The driving music clues us in to the fact the we are meant to see the dragon tank as some kind of fearsome juggernaut, though, as I alluded to earlier, the bright light of day makes the plywood and cardboard nature of its construction far too plain for us to do so. Even on the crappy, Nth generation gray market copy of the movie that I watched you could still clearly see the nails and globs of glue, as well as the overall — for lack of a better word — floppiness of the thing. Completing this picture are the dragon’s tiny little vestigial legs, which pedal away purposelessly as the tank rolls along. All in all, it looks more like something that would have been built in the Our Gang club house than any conveyance worthy of a super-villain.
Needless to say, the Bionic Boy ends up making short work of the dragon tank and Herr Kunst ends up going out like a punk, rather than the worthy peer of Lex Luthor that he appeared to see himself as. Hong Kong is safe to continue making more accomplished martial arts films than the Philippines. And, while this will be the Bionic Boy’s cinematic swan song, Cleopatra Wong is primed for one more shot at the big screen, in 1979’s Pay or Die. As for us, the film’s audience, we are free to retreat, with visions of that sublimely silly contraption rolling through our minds, ready to begin the process of selective forgetting that will undoubtedly bring us back to Dynamite Johnson‘s doorstep once more, for better or worse.