Friday, September 30, 2011

Aces Go Places 2 (aka Mad Mission Part 2: Aces Go Places)

                                                   Director: Eric Tsang
                     Starring: Sam Hui, Karl Maka, Sylvia Chang, Yasuaki Kurata

The immediate followup to the wildly successful Aces Go Places (which I reviewed some months ago) is not only my favorite in the series but it just may be the greatest action comedy ever to come out of Hong Kong.

The admittedly difficult to follow story picks up shortly after the first film ended. The Godfather (unseen in this film) is still furious at King Kong and Baldy for having stolen the diamonds (what he and the other charaters never realize is that they no longer have said diamonds). Since White Glove had failed him, he calls on the White House (!) to send their number one assassin, Filthy Harry (an unnamed white actoer who does a dead on Clint Eastwood impression) to kill our heroes. Back in Hong Kong (where the remaining 95% of the film takes place) King Kong finds himself repeatedly setup by a deceitful damsal who tricks him into robbing a bank. Fleeing from the cops, he interrupts Baldy and Ha Tung's wedding, leading to further bickering amongst the trio. In addition to Filthy Harry, Kong and Baldy find their trail dogged by a Japanese gangster (verteran Yasuaki Kurata in a memorably low key comedic turn) and must also deal with an escaped mental patient who's posing as an F.B.I. agent (hilariously played by Tsui Hark who nearly steals the film).

If the above plot description makes the film sound a bit disorienting, it's because it is. The story veers off in all kinds of directions that exist for the sole reason to hold the action and comedy together. Yet it all works and works wonderfully, thanks in no small part to the deft direction of Eric Tsang. Tsang did an excellent job on the first entry and manages to up the ante considerably here. For me, this film is ninety minutes of sheer joy as it breathlessly goes from one frentic setpiece to another. The fight scenes are an improvement (though admittedly they're still not at the level of what Jackie Chan and Smmo Hung were performing) and the car chases though pretty remarkable in the first, are improved ten fold here. The mid film chase alone (including backwards driving for much of it) is one of the greatest of it's type ever filmed. Then there are Filthy Harry's robots (yes, imagine Clint Eastwood with a pair of giant robots at his disposal). There is an entire sequence where Harry's giant bot battles Kong's army of small toy bots and it may be the highlight of the film (well for this robot loving fan, anyway).

But the heart of the film's enjoyment remains our ever loveable trio of mismatched heroes. Sam Hui, Karl Maka and Sylvia Chang have now grown into their roles and are a true joy to watch as they play off each other with a rare level of charm for this type of movie. They supply the film with it's soul and keep everything well grounded, despite the almost constant craziness that goes on around them.

Complete with the welcome return of the James Bond, whistling, fuzz guitar theme (as identifiable to this series as anything else), Aces Go Places 2 is an endlessly enjoyable and inventive farce. Easily one of my favorite films, I've watched this a dozen or so times over the years and it's still as fresh and enjoyable as the first time I viewed it. A desert island film to be sure.

                                                           **** / ****

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gambling for Head

                                                Director: Jimmy Shaw     
                        Starring: James Nam, Gam Kei Chu, Travador Ramos

One of the many consistencies of early 70s Chinese martial arts films is that they include a gambling scene. To this day, I'm not sure why so many of them did, other than to serve as a way to advance the plot (which I guess is all the reason that's needed). But it wasn't until this incredible 1975 basher was unleashed on the good public that the entire crux of the story revolved around the ever present gambling den.

Gambling for Head tells the story of a poor fisherman whose wife dies giving birth to their child. Broke and jobless, he leaves his son in the care of his best friend as he seeks help from his uncle who lives in another town. When the baby grows gravely ill and needs hospitalization, the friend resorts to visiting a gambling hall in an attempt to raise money. When he looses his last dollar, he resorts to offering his head as currency. He looses that bet, too... Upon returning home, the fisherman finds his child dead and his friend murdered by the casino owned thugs (yes this is one DARK mamajama of a story). In a fit of understandable rage , he first murders the second, third and fourth in command (each a top fighter) and with their decapitated heads in a bag, marches to the gambling den to confront the boss.

Director Jimmy Shaw films the first half of this ferociously grim revenge tale in a circular manner, ala Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction. It is a surprisingly ambitious move on Shaw's part and he manages to successfully pull it off. Throughout the first thirty minutes, we see our hero face off individually against a trio of his enemies. During each fight, there is a either a cutaway or splitscreen mirroring an incident at the casino which we have yet to see. It isn't until after these battles that we then flashback showing the full, horrific incident involving his friend at the casino (and some of this is indeed tough to watch). For the final thirty minutes, we are then brought up to speed as the enraged fisherman confronts the main boss. Though initially this technique may be a bit befuddling for first time viewers, it builds dramatically as a result and by the final freeze framed image, one is left feeling drained.

Starring in this harrowing film was "Mr. Rage" himself, James Nam. As I mentioned in my review of Thunderbolt Fist, few (if any) can convey anger and hatred like Nam. Usually relegated to villainous roles, here he makes for the ideal avenging hero. This in addition to some rather ugly and scary looking baddies, fuels the fight scenes wonderfully. The final twenty minute plus confrontation is as savagely intense as any I recall seeing, further fueled by unusual (and nasty) weaponry (the head baddie's lackeys use claw like devices that clamp around the enemy's arms and legs).

Gambling for Head emerges as a top notch late period basher that is a must for genre fans.

                                                             *** / ****

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kartal Yuvasi (Turkish Straw Dogs)

                                                  Director: Natuk Baytan
                         Starring: Yildiz Kenter, Ceyda Karahan, Cemil Sahbaz

When I first heard that there was a Turkish remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, I was in no way prepared for the bit of culture shock that awaited me. Though the basic theme of the original (meek person defending home against vicious locals) was present and many of the most memorable scenes recreated, there turned out to be far more differences in this version than similarities.

Filmed in 1974, Kartal Yuvasi was really a reinterpretation and that was likely out of necessity. Rather than being a meditation on the meaning of violence with no clear cut hero or villian, this version instead fed off local angst of the times. In this case it was about the conflict raging between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus with the Turkish Muslim community being forced out. During the making of this film, there was first a Greek military coup followed by a Turkish invasion. Director Natuk Baytan saw the uprising as the ideal backdrop for his Straw Dogs. Also out was Dustin Hoffman's character. Being that Turkey was at war, there was simply no place for a wimpy main character with questionable motivation. The solution was to replace him with... a woman and an elderly one at that!

The story starts with the arrival of a young Turkish doctor named Murat who has returned to visit his mother in his home in Cyprus along with his English fiance, Mary. Immediately, the good doctor is off to the hillside to aid a sick patient and does not return for the rest of the film. Left alone with Murat's mother, the two uneasy In Laws to be are almost immediately harassed by the brutish, ornery locals. The Mother you see is Muslim and is not welcome in the Catholic village. Things quickly escalate, leading to rape, murder and the eventual seige of the mother's house.

Throughout the movie, it is both the cultural and particularly the religious overtones which serve as the motivation behind the violence. This is encapsulated by Mary who is Catholic, but will convert to the Muslim faith for her husband. This as much as anything else, enrages the locals and gives way to her being raped by them. This scene is made all the more disturbing by the film's juxtaposing between this and a child birth being performed by the mother. And unlike the similar scene portrayed in the original, Mary clearly does not enjoy being raped (again, the characters in this version are completely black and white; not a shade of grey to be found here). During the climatic siege of her home, the mother defiantely reveals to the invaders that she is wearing the Turkish flag underneath her clothing. She also plays a record of Turkish marching band music (which actually resonates more than the bagpipe music used in the original). Just in case the Patriotic theme wasn't hammered home strongly and thoroughly enough, these climatic scenes are jarringly joined by edited footage of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus that was occuring during production! This elevates the proceedings to a truly hysterical level.

Kartal Yuvasi adds up to a pretty amazing viewing experience. It is a reinterpretation that can stand alongside it's filmic influence. It does admittedly come up short of Peckinpah's masterpiece, but it is still a harrowing slab of cinematic mayhem in it's own right.

                                                                 *** / ****


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Heroine Susan, the Sister of the Shangtung Boxer

                                             Director: Wong Hung Cheung
                                 Starring: Wang Ping, Charlie Chin, Jack Long

Here's an unofficial, independently made sequel to the classic Shaw Brothers epic, Boxer From Shangtung. The Susan of the title is actually Ma Su Chen, sister of Ma Young Chan and a real life freedom fighting heroine whose exploits have been documented in many a kung fu move over the years.

As the credits roll, the film begins with a recreation of the climax of Boxer From Shangtung with the Ma Young Cheng charater receiving his bloody demise via axes to the chest and back. Arriving in town, Ma Su Chen learns of her brother's untimely demise. Unfortunately, the town is too frightened to speak out against the viscious gang behind the murder and who are now ruling the land, so to speak. This forces Ma to go undercover as a man (a comon and consistently unconvincing thread run through the Ma Su Chen films in particular and many 70s kung fu movies in particular). As she and her likeminded rebel friends learn the truth, the bodies start piling up.

Heroine Susan is in a word, disappointing. Wong Hung Cheung's direction is fairly flat and the martial arts choreography is some of the slowest and poorest I've seen from a 1973 production. There are times when a fighter can be seen throwing a punch or kick so half assed and so off it's mark, that it looks more like a blown outtake. It does attempt to pick up some steam at the very end with the inclusion of a pair of outlandish mercenaries hired by the baddies. One is a samurai and the other appears to be an American Indian! Unfortunately, their fights at the climax aren't much better choreographed than the feeble battles that preceeded them.

This is especially a shame since the performances are all quite good. In the role of Ma Su Chen, Wang Ping is very engaging. After watching her do almost nothing but cry throughout King Boxer, it is nice to see her in a lead fighting role. She's no Angela Mao or Polly Shang Kwan, but she clearly is trying her best and her pretty face is displayed well (making her male disguise scenes all the more ludicrous). It was fun to see a young Charlie Chin playing Ma's sidekick. I had gotten used to seeing him mostly in comedic roles in Sammo Hung films of the 80s (My Lucky Stars, Eastern Condors) with the big exception being his chillingly villianous turn in On the Run. His performance here is good, but not especially memorable. Like Wang Ping, he does not appear to be the most accomplished of screen fighters (though again, this could be attributable to the poor choreography).

Ultimately, Heroine Susan exists now more as a curiosity for old school kung fu completists and it will likely come up short even for that crowd.

                                                             ** / ****

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Manster (aka The Split)

                                Director: George P. Breakston, Kenneth G. Crane
                             Satrring: Peter Dyleny, Tetsu Nakamura, Jane Hylton

The opening scene features a pair of Japanese women frolicking in a bath house as another is inside, fixing her makeup. Unbeknownst to this poor unfortunate, a monstrous ape like presence approaches. Seen in shadow, the beast attacks and rips at the beauty until her blood splashes onto a door. Thus begins the credit sequence of this surprisingly lurid and trashy 1959 shocker.

The story is about American journalist, Larry Stanford (played by British/Canadian actor Peter Dylany) who while on assignment in Japan, schedules an interview with the brilliant, yet eccentric Japanese scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura) who lives high up on a volcano mountain. The good doctor turns out to be something a mild mannered quack who has been experimenting on family members. His brother has been transformed into an ape like creature (presumably the same one from the pre credits sequence, but this was never made clear). After apologizing to his newly mutated kin (!) Suzuki shoots him dead and throws the carcas into an infurmary. We then see his wife; a hideous looking mutant thing that the doc. keeps locked up in a cage. Ain't love grand? When Larry shows up for the expected interview, he is unknowingly given a serum that eventually (after some admittedly unnecessary plot and character exposition) turns him into a crazed maniac who spawns a second beastly head. After a few murders and some considerable carnage, the "Manster" returns to the lab and kills Suzuki. Making his way up the volcano, Larry 's beast head "Splits" from him and reveals itself to be another of the now deceased doc's simian nasties. This sets up a Jekyll and Hyde style smackdown finale.

For the most part, The Manster is great fun. There's a very unhealthy atmosphere pervading this picture with some surprising sexual overtones (Larry is seduced in no uncertain way by Suzuki's secretary and as part of the subplot, is willing to forsake his marriage for a bit of fun) and some pretty intense violence to match. It sort of ends up feeling like forbidden fruit for the kiddies.

The makeup effects like much of the rest of the film, run hot and cold. When on the lamb from the police, it is quite obvious that Larry's second cranium is a goofy looking rubber prop. However in the (too few) closeups, the monstrous head is terrifyingly realistic. The most memorable scene in the film of course, is when a screaming (both in pain and terror) Larry first discovers a pre head eyeball on his shoulder. It is an iconic moment and one which influenced many a horror director, most notably Sam Raimi who lifted the sequence wholesale for Army of Darkness.

Overall, The Manster is a mixed bag where the good stuff outweighs the bad. It's a fun, goofy, yet decidedly creepy schlockathon that could have been even more had it been afforded a bigger budget and tighter script.

                                                              *** / ****

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Iron Dragon Strikes Back (aka The Gold Connection)

                                                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 / ****