Director: Gwai Chi Hung
Starring: Ho Chung Tao, Kao Fei
It can be seen as both a blessing and a curse that talented Taiwanese martial artist Ho Chung Tao was redubbed Bruce Li. Through his new identity, he got to star in dozens of Brucesploitation vehicles throughout the 70s. Some were actually not too bad and one in particular; Bruce Lee The Man, The Myth is widely considered one of the best (if not THE best) Lee documentaries. The sad part is that Ho was better than this. He was no Bruce Lee to be certain (then again, who was?), but he was a better fighter/actor than these cheapies deserved and much better than any of the other dozen or so Lee-alikes. By the end of the 70s the Brucesploitation cycle had reached it's end and Ho couldn't shake the albatross sized moniker. Fortunately, he continued to make movies for several more years under his true name (though this didn't stop exploitative Producers from retaining the Bruce signature; thinking that it would still make him more marketable). Some of these non-Lee films are actually quite good. This one, 1979's The Iron Dragon Strikes Back is easily one of his best. It is also one of the darkest themed kung fu movies I have ever seen.
In the film, Ho plays a down on his luck martial arts instructor who while scuba fishing with three friends, discovers a stash of Vietnamese gold. Realizing that it's likely stolen goods, Ho wishes to put it back, but is outvoted by the others who decide to take the gold and divide it. After one of them attempts to use some of it, the group finds themselves on the run from a particularly vicious gang that will stop at nothing to get their stolen gold back.
Director Gwai Chi Hung imbues the film with a terrific amount of tension and sense of foreboding that's very unusual for a martial arts film of this vintage . There is next to no comedy on display and the overall tone seems to harken back to the early seventies (where many a dark and downbeat story was told). The overall effect is almost on the level of a horror film. You are nearly always left feeling uneasy as our heroes are constantly besieged by waves of baddies. As each in turn meets his demise, that uneasiness increases to an almost unbearable degree.
The martial arts on display here are impressive with a heavy slant toward economical street fighting technique. Ho by this point in his career had developed into one of the more accomplished fighters in Hong Kong cinema and his skills are shown off to their fullest. Veteran Kao Fei plays the most dangerous of the gangsters' henchmen and his final reel battle with Ho is one of the very best one on one battles ever seen in 70s martial arts films. His denouement is guaranteed to give first time viewers a jolt. Also in the cast is Hon Gwok Choi. Due to his comedic looks, Han was usually relegated to goofball status in various kung fu comedies like My Twelve Kung Fu Kicks and Crack Shadow Boxers. As Ho's student/friend, he continues to play that type of role. His early scenes are played more or less for laughs which makes it all the more nightmarish as the film's tone degenerates into it's black hole of no return.
The Iron Dragon Strikes Back is a hidden little gem that any fan of Ho Chung Tao (I refuse to call him Bruce Li in this case) would do well to seek out. An ahead of it's time classic!
***1/2 / ****