Friday, May 31, 2013

Men From The Gutter

Director: Lam Nai Choi
Satrring: Jason Pai Piao, Wong Yung, Lo Mang, Michael Miu Kiu Wai, Chen Pei Hsi

This is an early effort from noted director Lam Nai Choi (he who lensed many Hong Kong cult favorites such as The Seventh Curse, Killer's Nocturne and the now legendary Story of Ricky) and while it may not feature the sheer outrageousness that dominated his later work, it is still quite an eye opening piece of late period Shaw Brothers action.

Racing ahead at full throttle, 'Men From The Gutter' features no less than three seperate and somewhat disparate storylines. We are first introduced to a trio of down on their luck ex-cons (one with a pregnant girlfriend in tow) who are planning an armored truck heist. Our second group of protagonists are an on-edge police unit and their attempts to take down a druglord. Our third participant is an assassin (Jason Pai Piao) who is returning to settle a score with an old rival.

Director Lam even at this early stage in his career (this I believe was only his third film) displayed his fearlessness at trying something different. That we have intertwinding stories is not unusual, but how little they are actually intertwined certaintly is (one of our three scenarios ends early on and is barely reated upon). That we never once feel as though we are watching separate films (ala Godfrey Ho cut and paste epics) is a real tribute to Lam's skills. Everything feels organic, assured and correct. Lam also shows here that he was already a master of brutal carnage. As with his later entries (particularly Killer's Nocturne) you really feel it when the action comes. The early squash match between Pai Piao and the ever dangerous looking Lee Hoi Sang is positively wince inducing.

Among the cast, Jason Pai Piao gives one of the most subtle yet intense oerformances of his lengthy career. 'Venom' fave Lo Mang is always entertaining and his perf as a hot headed cop siuts him well. As the pregnant girlfriend, I barely recognized Chen Pei Hsi. So memorable as the mata hari-like female ninja in the previous year's 'Five Element Ninja' (aka Super Ninjas), she has sadly little to do here. It seems her career never took off after such a promising start.

As with 'Hong Kong Godfather' (reviewed earlier in this blog), 'Men From the Gutter' proves that the mighty Shaw Brothers were both willing and able to keep up with their contemporaries who were leading the way in the modern action uprising in the '80s. That such a strong an entry as this was virtually ignored upon release was a greater crime than any committed within it's reels.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fantasy Mission Force

Director: Chu Yen Ping
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Jackie Chan, Bridgette Lin, Chang Ling, Adam Cheng

Yes, I am a fan of 'Fantasy Mission Force' and I'm not afraid to admit it. I wasn't always quite so enamored with it, though. I first rented this on vhs way back in 1987. With no point of reference whatsoever, I was unprepared for the unprecedented whackiness that I was about to experience and I immediately rejected what I was watching. It wasn't until years later when I familiarized myself with the cockeyed visions of director Chu Yen Ping that I revisited this film. Seeing it again through more educated orbs, I was able to appreciate the extreme fun that this and the director's other films brought

Near as I can tell, the film is set somewhere between the late 1930s to early 40s; Japan is attempting to take over the world and the united forces are... well, trying to stop them. When four top Chinese generals are taken hostage, a small ragtag group of mercenary soldiers are gathered as a commando squad under the leadership of Captain Don Wen (Wang Yu) and sent on a suicide rescue mission. Wen is gunned down, but the rest decide to continue the mission with the aid of ex-wrestler, Sammy (Jackie Chan) and his former manager, Emily (Chang Ling) who basically tail the group and intervene when necessary. However as things unwind, all is definately not as it seems...

The above plot synopsis does zero justice in revealing what an utterly bizarre experience 'Fantasy Mission Force' is. As with Chen's previous work (Island Warriors, Golden Queens Commando, Pink Force Commando), he presents material that seems to come out of someone's lucid dream. We have characters that don't seem to be acting in the same film, a bizarre musical number, ghosts and other such things that seem to be thrown in at the director's whim. And just when you think you have the extreme goofiness figured out, Chen pulls a major switcharoo by throwing in a dead serious and downbeat finale. That he makes the proceedings so entertaining is a tribute to his directorial clarity. As crazy as it all is, it is also quite clear that the man has a vision mapped out and sees it through to it's (il)logical conclusion.

Though top billed, Jackie Chan's role is really little more than a glorified cameo, amounting to about as much screen time as he had in Sammo Hung's 'Lucky Stars' features. Reportedly, he appeared in the film as a favor to Wang Yu who was instrumental in keeping the Triads away early in his career (he would do so again a decade later in Island of Fire). He and Chang Ling's characters' floating in and out of the film is no odder than anything else that goes on here. Wang Yu is typically tough in the role of the sqaud's leader. His final battle with Chan (at the risk of giving away the film's spoiler here), is gritty and intense, far more satisfying than their previous duel in 'Killer Meteors'. Bridgette Lin Ching Hsia is always a welcome addition, though she has far less to do here than in Chu's two '...Commando' films. Chang Ling is as always. spunky and endearing and does well as Chan's manager/partner.

'Fantasy Mission Force' may not be quite as endearing as 'Golden Queens Commando' or 'Pink Force Commando' and should not be seen as a Jackie Chan vehicle (lessen learned), But if viewed in the right frame of mind (and with prior knowledge of Chu Yen Ping being an essential tool), then you will find it's pleasures to be many and varied.

Rating: 6/10


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Golgo 13

Director: Junya Sato
Starring: Ken Takakura, Pouri Baneai, Mohsen Sohrabi

One of Japan's greatest and most popular mangas, Golgo 13 (the name meaning Golgatha plus the thirteen diciples depicted in Jesus' last supper - but you already knew that, right?) also would be one of the more difficult to translate to the screen, what with it's complex characters and twisty storylines, to say nothing of it's always exotic locales which in many cases would prove cost prohibitive for any proposed live action interpretation. Regardless, Japan gave it a try in 1977 with 'Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment'. Starring a game Sonny Chiba, it was a middling affair at best (though one I've grown to appreciate slightly more after having seen a widescreen, subtitled version). For decades, I had assumed that this was the only live action treatment of the manga. I found out how wrong I was just last year when I started to hear murmurings of an earlier version starring non other than Ken Takakura. Now thanks to a fan subbed edition of the Japanese dvd, I finally had a chance to watch it.

This version of the film posits our sharp shooter assassin in Tehran, Iran (the location being made possible due to the recent oil agreement between Japan and Iran). Golgo's (real name: Duke Togo) mission; to hunt down and terminate international do badder, Max Boa, an untouchable weapons/ drug smuggler and flesh peddler (you know the type).

Considering it was made in 1973 which was the peak of Japan's wild anything goes period, 'Golgo 13' is a notably restrained production. This is probably due to Iran's restrictions. There is no nudity on display and little in the way of bloodshed. The whole production has a very straightforward, almost episodic feel as if everyone just wanted to be on their best behavior. The first half tends to suffer a little because of this as it seems director Sato was too content to merely introduce it's many characters and basic storyline. It could have used some spruicing up, to be honest. Yet despite that bit of negativity, there is much to like about the film. The Iranian locales are pleasingly exotic and well shot (though it was a minor distraction for me that all of the locals were dubbed in Japanese). The action (when it does arrive) is lively and suspensful with a truly nail biting climax. At the film's center is the towering presence of one Ken Takakura. His natural screen persona (he is afterall known as the man who never smiles) makes him a perfect Golgo.  The it ain't over 'till it's over finale was one of the more satisfying I have experienced, displaying a welcome sense of humor as no one and no thing is safe from our protagonist's wrath.

While certainly not on the level of other live action manga adaptations such as the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' and 'Female Prisoner Scorpion' series, 'Golgo 13' did at least prove that an effective live action version of the popular character could be done. For those who were disappointed with the Chiba vehicle, give this one a try.

Rating: 5/10