Monday, May 28, 2012

Curse of the Aztec Mummy

                                                Director: Rafael Portillo
 Starring: Ramon Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado (aka El Angel), Luis Acevis Castenada


Aside from El Santo, there is probably no more iconic a character in Mexican pop cinema than the Aztec Mummy (named 'Popoca'). Though drawing part of it's influence from the Universal Mummy movies of the '40s, the Spanish variation offers more genuine atmosphere and a less romanticized version of the legend. Unlike Kharis from the U.S. version, Popaca was not given eternal life in the hopes of reanimating an Egyptian Princess. Rather he is charged with protecting a breastplate that holds the secret to uncovering a long lost treasure. The more striking difference however lies in the Aztec Mummy's appearance. Unlike Universal's interpretation which usually portrays Kharis bandaged from head to toe, gimpy arm and feet dragging, Popoca is more mobile (though still a bit on the slow side) and dressed in ceremonial gear, making him appear more as an ancient zombified warrior. The face and head offer the mosr eyebrow raising difference. Rather than the expected wrinkled, subdued face with one bad eye and hair matted (glued) down, our Aztec avenger has wild hair and a skull-like visage. This was likely patterened after the actual Mummies of Guanaguato exibit (and later used in a lucha film series of the same name). The resulting appearance is imminantly more satisfying (to me, anyway).

Curse of the Aztec Mummy was the middle film in a trilogy, all released in 1957 (and likely shot back to back to back, by the looks of them). The crux of the story in all three entries was a running battle between opposing scientists, the good Dr. Almada who wishes to prove his theory of reincarnation (or something along that line) and the evil Dr. Krupp who is out to steal the treasure. In this respect, Popoca ultimately becomes the hero of the series as he is the only one who proves able to stop Krupp. Sadly, our too cool looking mummy appears for only roughly fifteen minutes during each of the three pics hour long running time. Each time, he basically shows up at the very end to foil Krupp's plans. It's a shame the filmmakers weren't creative enough to incorporate him into the episodic stories a little better. For this second film, we are "treated" to faux Lucha Libre, El Angel. Similar to Neutron (star of several entertaining faux Lucha films), El Angel is not a true wrestler, but merely an actor posing as one for this film. And it must be said that this is easily the worst and most worthless masked superhero (cough!) in the history of cinema. Despite his initial heroic entrance and apparent strength, time after time we see El Angel get thoroughly trounced by Krupp's cronies (they of the '40's American gangster variety). The sight of a masked hero continually getting beaten to a pulp by a few thugs is really disconcerting. But that's not the worst part, oh no! After being tied and lowered into a snake pit. our 'hero' (cough!!) radios for help from... Dr. Almada's young nephew! Yes, El Angel risks a young boy's well being so that he may be rescued. I kid you not. And then they're BOTH captured! Nice work, Angel... Then follows the most unthinkable indignity of all; once tied, our 'hero' (cough!!!) is unmasked! Of course, the gimmick is that he is revealed to be a family friend who was considered a coward and donned the mask to redeem himself. Me thinks it didn't work out so well. All that's left now is for Popoca to awaken and lay an Aztecian smackdown on Krupp and his stereotypical gangsters (causing one of his men to get a facefull of acid in the process).

Curse of the Aztec Mummy (like the other two in the series) will not appeal to everyone. It's low budget and ultimate lack of mummy action may prove offputting to some. But for couch potatoes looking for something different and amusing to watch (preferably sometime after midnight), it should do the trick.

Incidentally, the third film in the trilogy was Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. This one featured Krupp creating a freaky 'bot (with a reanimated dead human inside!) to battle our semi-heroic  Popoka. That film was riffed by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

                                                                   ** / ****

Friday, May 18, 2012


                                                Director: Tu Kuang Chi
                     Starring: Jason Pai Piao, Ingrid Hu Yin-Yin, Chen Hung Lieh


Jason Pai Piao has had one of the longest and most ubiquitous careers of any in Hong Kong cinema. Originally signing with the Shaw Brothers in the late 60s, he quickly struck out on his own and starred in many independent martial arts films. By the mid 70s, his name and reputation grew large enough that he was able to return to the Shaws and be given larger, meatier roles that lasted well into the 80s and beyond. Of his early independent leading man vehicles, Crush is one of his best (and one of the toughest to track down, at least in it's original version and with an English translation).

In the film Pai plays Wong, a mysterious Chinese stranger wandering Korea during the Japanese occupation. Coming upon a Tae Kwan Do school that is being harassed (and then some) by a clan of decidely loathsome samurai (who have no qualm about unseathing their swords to kill the unarmed Koreans), he decides for no apparent reason other than being virtuous to defend the school. As a master of Tang Style Boxing, Wong proves to be up to the task.

If the plot sounds run of the mill, it's because it is. What makes this particular pic so successful and absorbing lies in the deft direction applied by Tu Kuang Chi. A veteran director of dramas and love stories whos credits date back to 1950, Crush would be Tu's last and his lone attempt at lensing a Basher. What Tu did here was devise a lean and mean 82 minute distilation of the traditional evil Japanese theme by amping up their badness to the tenth degree (honestly, samurai who almost casually cut down unarmed oponenets?!) and adds a feeling of exotica by having the entire pic take place in the snowy mountain area of Korea. This exotic locale (for back then) along with a pacing that just zips right along reveals an assured hand behind the camera. It's really a shame that Tu didn't direct more martial arts films as this one proves he was as sharp and perceptive in this genre as any of his peers.

Jason Pai Piao may at first not look like the traditional hero type, but he does have a commanding screen presence to go along with his strong screen fighting. Watching him in this and his other early bashers, I got the sense he was the real deal and could probably do most anything that was required of him. Ingrid Hu would again star with Pai in Blind Boxer (previous reviewed somewhere in this blog of mine). She has a way of portraying "quiet despair" that along with her beauty, made her one of the more mysterious Hong Kong starlets of the day. Chen Hung Lieh was one of the more reliable screen villians of this period. Beginning his career with the King Hu classic, Come Drink With Me, Chen has always proven to be a thoroughly hissable antagonist and more than fulfils that role here.

Crush is simply one of the best early Bashers that I have encountered so far. It's plot may be slight, but the memorable characters combined with Tu Kuang Chi's veteran direction and it's plentiful (and quite gory) action setpieces make this one a big time winner and highly recommended.

BTW, this film was also redubbed by the French who gave it a "What's Up Tiger Lily?" sendup and retitled it "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?". This version treats the proceedings as an itellectual comedy. It's worth seeking out under either moniker.

                                                              *** / ****


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Ninja Mission

                                                   Director: Mats Helge
                        Starring: Krzysztof Kolberger, Hanna Pola, Bo F. Munthe

Swedish Ninja; yep, it just rolls right off the tongue doesn't it? What's that, it doesn't? Yeah, guess not. For most in fact, the words Sweden and Ninja make about as much sense together as Swedish meatballs with chocolate syrup. Yet sure enough, that's exactly what we're dealing with here (Swedish Ninja that is, not the meatball thing). As much of an anomaly as it seems to be, it kind of makes sense considering that it was made in 1984 which represented the peak of Ninja mania, both here in the U.S. and apparently just about everywhere else too.

This tale of espionage centers on a brilliant Russian nuclear physicist who while attempting to defect to the West, finds himself kidnapped by the KGB along with his beautiful daughter (don't all brilliant scientists seems to have a beautiful young daughter in these types of films?). While in their captive, the Ruskies force him (by torturing her, of course) to finish his work on a top secret weapon that could ultimately swing things in favor of the hammer and sickles. In response to this a C.I.A. operative dispatches his ninja squad in the hopes of rescuing the two captives... and retrieve the all important secret formula.

The Ninja Mission has built up something of a cult reputation since it's brief vhs release here during the mid eighties and it's easy to see why. Though it's political shenanigans felt tired and dated even back then, it is buoyed by it's unusual and plentiful action scenes (most of which are relegated to it's first and last thirds, allowing the story to take over in the middle). In addition to using the expected ninja style and weapons (stealth, stars, etc.) these assassins were also inclined to use machine guns! This unusual (and welcomed) trait gives things a decidedly esoteric feel. The martial artistry displayed here is O.K. but nothing special (this could be said for most non Asian martial arts movies back then), but the action scenes do have an ace in the hole and that is extreme gore. This is easily one of the goriest films of this type that I have seen. The limb separations, decapitations (icnluding a head severed at the jaw line!) and blood squibs are all of the ooey gooey variety which are more common in Italian horror films. Much of this gore is also shot in Peckinpah wannabe slo-mo, in case you needed more time to take it all in.

Overall, The Ninja Mission makes for fairly fun, exploitative entertainment. It's production values are decent and the too familiar story does not bog the action down too badly. It's no masterpiece, but it will satisfy the ninja lover craving something a little different.

                                                                 **1/2 / ****

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Master Strikes

                                                Director: Kao Pao Shu
               Starring: Meng Yuen Man, Ching Siu Tung, Casanova Wong, Yen Shi Kwan


One of the more notable examples of the kung fu comedy genre, both in a good and bad way (mostly good).

An escort (Casanova Wong) loses his mind after losing a valuable jade horse. The owner (Yen Shi Kwan) is actually a master criminal posing as wealthy entrepreneur and through his maneuverings, caused the escort to relinquish all his belongings as payment. A pair of con men (Meng Yeun Man and Ching Siu Tung) happen upon the crazed, gibbering ex-escort and decide that it may be within their best interests to help solve the mystery of the disappearing jade statue.

First the bad; the so called "comedy" in The Master Strikes is some of the most forced and most painfully unfunny I have ever had the displeasure of sitting through. It's bad enough when a joke or situation elicits eye rolling and/or blank stares (well, from me anyway), but it's even worse when it is accompanied by forced guffaws from the other characters. This happens a few times and it is pretty intolerable. Another minus for me is Casanova Wong's antics as the crazed escort. His mugging  needed to be severely toned down. Granted, he does it well, but, jeez!

Now the good; the story (something of a whodunit/murder mystery) is a strong one and the actors involved are all terrific fighters AND thesps. The two leads (Meng Yuen Man and future Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu Tung who also doubled here as action/fight choreographer) are a likeable pair and play off each other well despite the badly written comedy antics. The scene where they basically con an old hermit into teaching them his famed Heaven and Earth style of kung fu is great and shows that the film's humor can be clever when it wants to be. Casanova Wong (real name Ca Sa Fa) is one of the great Korean kickers and this film perhaps better than any other shows off his amazing fighting skill. His kicks here are amazingly fast, powerful and efficient. And despite my complaining in the previous paragraph about his way over the top mugging, at least he was brave enough to go the distance with the part. Yuen Shi Kwan solidifies his reputation (as he previously had in Fearless Hyenna) as one of the baddest assed bad guys in kung fu cinema. He doesn't necessarily look the part but when he fights, he has few peers. His villainous turn is given a tremendous amount of respect here as he proves in the finale to be too much not only for Meng and Ching's characters, but (gasp!) even Casanova can't lay a mit on him! His ultimate defeat at their combined hands (and feet) therefor is made all the more rewarding. This climatic battle incidentally is one of the best you will ever see from this period. In fact, all of the fights in the film are really eye popping By this point (1980), the styles (or Shapes) have been mostly done away with. In their place in this instance are some of the fastest and most frentic screen fighting this side of a Sammo Hung film.

The Master Strikes is all in all, a nice little fu/action movie. If you can tolerate the (cough!) humor, you will find yourself rewarded with a fun plot, engaging characters and some truly breathtaking battles. Recommended.

                                                                *** / ****