Devil’s Dynamite

The pain and glory of watching a Thomas Tang movie is that you never know what you are going to get, but it will almost always be stunningly terrible. Tang, for those fortunate enough to require an introduction, is part of the unholy trinity that also includes director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai, film makers in only the broadest and most liberal definition of the term. Their specialty, often working in concert, was to take part of one cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, splice it together with parts of a second cheap-ass Hong Kong movie, pepper in some original footage — usually of ninjas, hopping vampires, or white dudes (and by “white dudes” I mostly mean “Richard Harrison”) — then dub the entire thing into English in a lackadaisical attempt to make some sort of halfway coherent plot out of the mess. Using this formula, a guy like Thomas Tang could make ten or twelve movies out of just a couple movies, with very little production cost. By the time people paid to see whatever Frankenstein monster resulted from the process, it was too late for them to be pissed off. Thomas Tang — or Godfrey Ho, as the case may be — already had your money.

Although these film makers are most closely identified with crapping out hacked together ninja movies, often featuring guys in bright red ninja suits with headbands that say “Ninja,” they by no means limited themselves to exploiting the ninja craze alone. Around the same time as people were going ninja movie crazy in the early 1980s, Hong Kong was in the midst of a hopping vampire — or gyonshi — craze initiated by movies like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and Mr. Vampire. Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang didn’t make as many shitty vampire movies as they did ninja movies, but they still knew enough to exploit the trend for a tidy profit. From time to time, they would combine their two favorite subjects, resulting in bizarre, nonsensical hybrids like Vampire Raiders, Ninja Queen (I really wish that one was out on DVD somewhere — my VHS of it was eaten years ago by a dying VCR). And then there’s Devil’s Dynamite, a movie that awkwardly tapes together a turgid underworld drama with a movie in which a laughing Caucasian thug and a Taoist priest use gyonshi to battle a dude who sometimes, for no reason that is ever explained (and to no apparent benefit) transforms into a space-helmeted, silver foil clad “Futuristic Warrior.” Oh, and also sometimes…ninjas!

Devil’s Dynamite is set in that low budget Hong Kong movie time period where some people dress and possess technology from the 1920s while others strut around in 1970s flares and drive Cadillacs. As best as can be puzzled out from the incoherent mess of a script made up after the fact, there’s some bearded white dude and a Taoist priest working at the behest of a gangland moll named Mary. Everyone is upset that famed Chinese gambling king and gangster Steven Cox is about to get out of prison after being set up by Mary and her crew of backstabbers. In an effort to make sure Steven Cox (and they almost always refer to him by his full name) doesn’t cause trouble, Mary employs the Taoist to resurrect some hopping vampires to kill the swanky ex-con. In the world of Thomas Tang, this scheme makes perfect sense.

However, because the vampire storyline and the Steven Cox storyline are from different movies, at no point in the movie do the vampires ever get around to confronting Steven Cox. Instead, the vampires spend their time messing with young Alex, who as we mentioned earlier, likes to disappear in a puff of smoke or bit of spliced film and reappear as the Futuristic Warrior, wearing shiny silver MC Hammer pants and a chintzy Flash Gordon space helmet that can’t possibly be reasonable headware for anyone engaging in precision martial arts techniques. As far as I can decipher, the dubbed plot never makes any effort to connect Futuristic Warrior to the Steven Cox story. There’s maybe one scene where Alex and his buddy discuss Steven Cox, but what his exact role in the other plot is supposed to be, is never made clear, He just sort of happens to be around and figures, well hell, if there are vampires raiding gambling halls, and I can turn into a space man, I might a well fight vampires.

Alex’s super powers in his Futuristic Warrior guise are, well… he doesn’t have any, beyond the ability to transform into Futuristic Warrior. I guess his suit protects him from swords and spears and whatnot, and his jaunty silver scarf tied sloppily around his neck probably makes it harder for the vampires to bite him. But I feel like those powers are sort of a disappointing pay-off for backflipping around in such an outrageous retro space suit. Whatever the case, Futuristic Warrior proves so irritating to the white guy (who I think is named Ronald) and the evil Taoist priest that they seem to abandon totally the plot to take out Steven Cox and instead focus all their energies on throwing down with Futuristic Warrior… and for some reason, occasionally terrorizing a little girl who has even less to do with any of the plots than anyone else. I’ve seen some reviews claim that she is a ghost haunting Mary’s mansion, even though it’s obviously not the same set, but the movie never bothers to mention this. And hell, even if it did, what the fuck sort of sense would that make as a subplot?

This leaves the Steven Cox and Mary movie free to sort of churn along in dreary, slowly paced fashion. Most of it consists of Mary and her boy toy engaging in some sort of social activity, only to have Steven Cox show up, act sort of menacing, and maybe slap around Mary until her boy toy interrupts and sends Steven Cox scurrying. They do this at home, at the beach, at her birthday party — you’d think they’d change the locks or call some corrupt cops to protect them or something. It’s all because everyone wants Steven Cox’s cache of hidden gold, the location of which is known only to him and… wait. Him and Mary? If she knows where the gold is, why doesn’t she already have it? Things come to a boring climax when Steven Cox raids her wedding. At some point, Angela Mao shows up in a bit part as someone who is befriended by Steven Fox, and later maybe becomes his lover? Hard to tell. Mostly she is there so she can kick some people before vanishing from this unfortunate portion of the movie.

Luckily, as shitty as that portion of the movie is, the rest of it is pretty much non-stop scenes of a dude wrapped in aluminum foil fighting hopping vampires. Sometimes, the vampires fight ninjas, because how could Tang and Ho make a movie without getting their money’s worth out of those ninjas costumes they own? At some point, the vampires actually dress up as ninjas — or maybe those were the zombie versions of the ninja killed by the vampires earlier. Exactly why there were ninjas in the first place is, like everything else, unexplained. When they show up to menace this little girl who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anyone else in the movie, sometimes the ninjas hop like zombies, but they aren’t committed to that form of locomotion and so also walk, run, jump, and use swords.

Futuristic Warrior eventually realizes that he needs more than kungfu and a stupid outfit to beat these gyonshi and zombie ninjas, so he enlists the assistance of a good guy Taoist priest, who does the usual: writes all over the dude and burns some paper statues while ringing a bell, thus imbuing Alex with the phenomenal powers you’d think he should have gotten in the first place as a guy who can transform into the same guy but in a baggy space suit. Ha ha, actually, the ritual doesn’t seem to give Alex any new power at all, but the priest does give him one of those reels of anti-vampire rope and teaches the Futuristic Warrior the fine art of sticking paper to a vampire’s forehead. Beyond that, though, Alex has to rely on his kungfu skills alone.

If Thomas Tang and Godfrey Ho had any sort of talent, it was finding movies so cheap and poorly distributed that they are often difficult to identify even for dedicated fans of Hong Kong films. Only rarely do I recognize the source material they plundered to make their freakish cinematic abominations. Even the stars of these anonymous pilfered scenes are often so nondescript so as to be almost unidentifiable to anyone but the most obsessed of fans. Even when someone who is actually famous shows up in one of these movies, they are rendered so strangely boring that it becomes hard to recognize them. Hell, they don’t even include the names of the stars in the credits, replacing them instead with a list of made up Western names. I only barely caught on that the bit part of “Peggy” was played by Angela Mao (who does not star as Mary, despite what many reviews and credit lists claim; Mary was played by former Shaw Bros. star Elsa Yeung) — and Angela Mao is not an actress I would normally fail to recognize immediately.

In the case of Devil’s Dynamite, the Steven Cox story was snipped from a pair of movies called The Stunning Gambling and what I think is its sequel, The Giant of Casino, or maybe it was the other way around. They are some of the rare Tang/Ho source films that, while not especially good, was at least populated by real stars, including not just Angela Mao, but also Elsa Yeung, Cheng Li, Chung Wa and Ling Yun. Movies like Devil’s Dynamite are weird enough on their own; they get even weirder when you see a movie or star you know co-opted (likely without their knowledge) and turned into an entirely different film or character. And if you really want a sense of awkwardness, The Stunning Gambling was also used as source material for Ninja the Violent Sorcerer, another cobbled together Tang/Ho production.

As far as I know, the rest of the film, all full of hopping vampires and Buck Rogers guys and that little girl who has absolutely nothing to do with anything but keeps attracting the attention of zombie ninjas, is comprised of original footage shot for this film. As utterly absurd as it all is, there is still some flash of… I don’t want to say skill… beneath the mess. But the fight scenes between the vampires, the ninjas, and Futuristic Warrior are actually pretty well choreographed, though sometimes poorly lensed. Ling Yun was an accomplished, if not exactly spectacular, actor with a lot of kungfu movie credits under his belt — including a number of my all-time faves from Chu Yuan, such as Killer Clans and Clans of Intrigue. Granted, the plot of this movie doesn’t give him much to do in between bouts of donning his silver pantaloons, but at the same time… he does don those silver pantaloons frequently, and when he leaps into action, the action is actually pretty decent.

This is another of those movies I rented with friends in college, back around probably 1992 or 1993. As was often the case, we had no idea what it was; we were simply going through the massive collection of kungfu films at the local video store, top to bottom. I think we rented this the same night as a movie called Unique Lama, which was a better title than it was movie. Actually, I think every time I tell a story about renting a movie from that video store, I claim that we rented it the same night as we rented Unique Lama. So don’t take me at my word when I say that, because that means I would have ended up renting Unique Lama like seventy times.

Whatever the case, by midnight and stuffed with god knows what, we were mentally prepared to stumble upon a movie as goofball strange as Devil’s Dynamite. That first fight scene where Alex rolls across the floor and then, totally without any fanfare at all, transforms into Futuristic Warrior with the help from a jump cut, had even us seasoned veterans of weird movies hooting and running out into the night to proclaim the glory of Devil’s Dynamite. It’s not actually as good as all that, but once again, the conditions under which I first saw it greatly enhance its entertainment value in my eyes. It’s no surprise that before rewatching it recently, I couldn’t remember at all the existence of the Steven Cox storyline, while the bits with Futuristic Warrior fighting hopping vampires were well and (rightfully) fondly remembered.

It’s a shame Thomas Tang didn’t pick a better second movie the work with, because the portions of this movie featuring Futuristic Warrior and the hopping vampires is an awesome froth of kungfu stupidity. Sadly, the good will that part of the film generates is frequently undercut by the listless melodrama of the other half of the movie. Still, it’s worth watching Steven Cox wear a giant bowtie and be sullen if it means we get to see the parts that are all future guy fighting zombies ninjas and vampires.

Release Year: 1987 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Elsa Yeung, Cheng Li, Chung Wa, Ling Yun, Angela Mao, Sun Yueh, Ricky Cheng, Mark Long, anyone who starred in the movies The Stunning Gambling or Giant of Casino, though it would probably be news to them that they were in Devil’s Dynamite | Screenplay: Probably Thomas Tang | Director: Joe Livingstone, who could probably be anyone | Producer: Thomas Tang