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Secret Rivals (1976) June 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , add a comment

Director: Ng See-Yuen  Starring: Wong Tao; John Liu; Hwang Jang-Lee  Territory: Hong Kong

Two Chinese fighters (Wong Tao and John Liu) separately converge on a small town in Korea where they set up residence in a local inn.  Sheng Ying-Wei (Wong Tao) is attending a martial arts competition held by the corrupt prince to find himself a new bodyguard.  Shao Yi-Fei (John Liu) watches proceedings from a distance.  Both men are drawn to the innkeeper’s daughter, sparking rivalry when Shao sends her a brooch and Sheng unwittingly takes the credit.  The prince, meanwhile, has a visit from the Silver Fox (Hwang Jang Lee); a bad sort indeed.  Our two heroes’ interest is then piqued and we find the real reason they’re in town.

There are times when only old-school martial arts movies will do.  For me, illness is one such time; a nasty bout of ‘flu and all I wanted was the healing power of cheap 70s kung fu.  I first stumbled, somewhat reluctantly, upon this film about eighteen years ago and wasn’t terribly impressed.  However, you have to remember that all we had were grainy, cropped, dubbed and censored (there is some nunchaku use) prints to deal with.  Although the “Digitally Remastered” tag Soulblade put on their edition seems a trifle misleading (it is hardly in a spotless condition), at least you can now see everything that’s going on.

Hwang Jang Lee gets a kicking

And what’s going on is a lot of legwork from John Liu and (of course) Hwang Jang-Lee and some moody training shots of Wong Tao and a good display of his fistwork.  While the backstory won’t win any awards for depth, it does try to introduce a bit of intrigue with the two central characters both after the same woman (hence the “secret rivals” of the title). 

But it’s the action that wins over the fans, and there’s a lot of it in Secret Rivals.  It’s easy to see why this cheap and cheerful flick from Seasonal films has become such an all-time classic, and if you’re hankering for some old-school fun, you should find plenty here.

New Police Story (2004) June 24, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Nicholas Tse; Daniel Wu  Territory: Hong Kong

The escalating antics of a gang of video-game obsessed cop-hating criminals forces Inspector Chan Kwok-Wing (Jackie Chan) out of retirement.  The gang had turned the once-brilliant cop into an alcoholic wreck following a stunt that saw the members of Chan’s team killed one-by-one.  Blaming himself for their deaths, Chan must shake his guilt if he and his new partner Frank (Nicholas Tse) are to bring the gang to justice.

Following the law of diminishing returns, the original Police Story series ended with a damp squib with the lamentable First StrikeNew Police Story is then a reboot of the series and not in any way connected to the original.  It’s an oddity in the canon of Jackie Chan in that it is mostly serious, but some flashes of Chan’s trademark comedy do turn up later in the movie. 

At various points in Chan’s career, he’s tried to reinvent himself as a serious actor, and New Police Story is another such attempt.  Although his general acting ability can always be questioned, one thing is clear: Chan makes an exceedingly convincing drunk in this (and please, no “drunken master” comments!).  The scene where he staggers into an alley puking his guts up looks too damn convincing for my liking.  It’s gritty, grotty and horrible, and makes you think you’re getting a whole different Jackie Chan movie.

However, the odd thing is, just like all of the other pre-Shinjuku Incident Chan movies, things tend to settle down into a more familiar feel.  Although this never turns into a slapstick comedy, there’s one hell of a sight gag later on in the movie which you certainly wouldn’t have expected when you see the intro sequence.  Also, the rumour that New Police Story wouldn’t include much action (at least from Chan) proved unfounded.

 New Police Story

I’ve found that time and time again, I dislike Chan’s recent films a lot less second time around.  I was quite scathing of the film upon release, but have to admit I enjoyed it a lot better this time around.  I’m sure it’s all down to diminished expectations.  The movie has faults (there are some illogical moments and plot-holes) but is generally well made.  The bad guys tend to be rather two-dimensional and melodramatic for today’s taste, but can be overlooked if you’re just in the mood for mindless action.  In that regard, it’s actually quite close to a typical 80s Hong Kong action movie.

I doubt that anyone would rate New Police Story among the best Jackie Chan movies, but it can be quite good fun, and spotting references to the original series can also provide a distraction if you get bored.  As with a lot of modern Hong Kong movies, the unwelcome spectre of Product Placement looms large in the finale, and this does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth.  But I was surprised how much fight was left in the old dog with this, even if the rest of the cast don’t put in too much effort.  And it’s great to see Chan taking the bus one last time.

Shinjuku Incident (2009) June 11, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, 2000s films , 7 comments

Director: Derek Yee  Starring: Jackie Chan; Daniel Wu; Takenada Naoto; Fan Bing-Bing  Territory: Hong Kong

Shinjuku IncidentSteelhead (Jackie Chan) becomes an illegal immigrant in Japan searching for his lost lover.  Struggling to make ends meet, he reluctantly turns to organised crime, escalating his criminal activities and threatening the lives of his friends and family.

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, although that’s what I’m going to be sounding like when I say that Shinjuku Incident isn’t too bad.  It has a fair dollop of melodrama, but is surprisingly watchable. 

The story itself is pretty routine, but is interesting enough to hold your attention.  It’s like a lot of Triad/Yakuza movies, a gritty (and often grotty) tale of the Underworld with revenge, loyalty and brotherhood.  There’s a friendly cop who will turn a blind eye to Steelhead’s criminal activity because he saved his life, as well as salt-of-the-earth family members who are collateral damage to his new-found life of crime.  Daniel Wu plays Jie, one of Steelhead’s closest friends.  I normally think Wu is pretty solid, acting-wise, but I thought he hamming it up here, and I didn’t really buy his character.

Of course, all eyes are on Jackie Chan as Steelhead here, and his much-touted attempt at a serious role.  A lot of comparisons are made with the 1992 flick Crime Story (and the post-modern Jackie Chan movie New Police Story), but let’s face it, Crime Story (decent though it was) played safe by adding some action scenes.  Shinjuku Incident is completely free of the kind of thing that makes people watch Jackie Chan movies.  Which does kind of leads to the question of why you’d want to watch a film with Jackie Chan in it if he’s not being Jackie Chan.  I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’m of the opinion that his strengths are in the loveable, mugging, underdog character he’s portrayed since 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and not as a serious actor.  That he makes a decent go at it only made it more difficult for me to accept his casting here.

The sex scene is a case in point.  Does anyone really want to see Jackie Chan having sex - even if it’s just on screen?  Watching Chan on the job is like seeing your favourite kindly uncle having sex - and not with your auntie. 

These points aside, there’s no denying that this is an interesting, enjoyable movie, even if I’d stop somewhere short of calling it gripping.   Its primary appeal ironically is probably people who don’t like Jackie Chan films.  Certainly if you don’t like his usual on-screen persona, that should not put you off watching Shinjuku Incident.

Lam Suet-o-meter: High!  When he’s been an extra in so many films, it’s quite a surprise when he gets a decent role and shows that he can out-act everyone on screen.  One of his better roles.

Operation Condor: Armour of God 2 (1991) June 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1990s films , 3 comments

Director: Jackie Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Carol “Do Do” Cheng; Eva Cobo De Garcia; Ikeda Shoko  Territory: Hong Kong

Despite failing miserably to retrieve the Armour of God from those wacky European monks in Armour of God, the Baron employs Condor (Jackie Chan) again – this time to liberate a cache of Nazi gold hidden in the Sahara desert since the end of World War 2.  However, various parties (including one of the original Nazis from the site and his henchmen) want it for themselves.  This time around, Condor is accompanied by three lovely ladies (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia and Ikeda Shoko), but instead of helping our intrepid adventurer, they often end up complicating matters…

Operation Condor was the sequel to 1987’s hugely successful Armour of God, although it the time-honoured tradition of western stupidity, it is often nowadays marketed the other way around.  After a decade of being able to take as much time and money as he liked to make his movies, Chan tops his directing career with what was, at the time, the most expensive Hong Kong movie ever made.  You probably wouldn’t be able to guess that fact now, as the effects and budget seem merely competent rather than outstanding, but it looked pretty darn spiffy at the time, I can tell you.  Sadly, after this film someone at Golden Harvest must have realised that they could make several times as much money if they made a Jackie Chan picture with a fraction of the budget and with more stringent time limits, and things were never quite the same again. 

So Operation Condor is the last of those Jackie Chan films that are just a complete joy to watch from start to finish (with one small exception that I’ll come to later).  It’s funny, exciting, and Chan puts on a hell of a show with his unique physical ability.  It’s been said before (mainly by myself) but it seems amazing that someone actually pulled off some of the feats Chan attempts, and in today’s CGI world it seems unlikely we will ever see the like of what’s put up on the screen here.

Operation Condor

The excellently choreographed action comedy sequences are fantastically intricate – from the adversary that keeps accidentally switching the lights on and off in Elsa’s house when attacked by Jackie all the way to the now-infamous Keaton-esque wind tunnel sequence that ends the movie.  The last fifteen minutes or so of Operation Condor really need to be seen to be believed, and the knockabout sight gags are definitely among the best ever put on the screen.

The supporting cast pretty much consists of Cheng, De Garcia and Shoko running around making things difficult for Jackie.  Their obvious dim-wittedness was a contentious issue with some at the time, but taken at face value, some of their skits are still pretty funny.  I think it was Bey Logan who described their antics as “three beauties in search of a brain”, and I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one.  No, the only thing I have trouble with now in this movie is the inclusion of a “cute baby in peril” sequence tacked on to the motorbike chase section.  It’s corny, contrived and cringeworthy, but only lasts for about a minute.

Operation Condor isn’t a terribly sophisticated movie by today’s standards – one feels you can pick rather large holes in the plot without too much effort – but for sheer fun, there are few movies that can hold a candle to it.  And if I can chuckle away at it again now, nearly two decades after it was released, then that can’t be all bad, can it?  One curious thing I did notice: the Baron hired Jackie to collect the gems at the start of the movie and also hired Jackie to collect the pieces of the Armour of God from the first movie.  Jackie failed both times to bring back the goods.  Why the hell does he keep hiring him?  And what do you think his reaction would have been at what happened at the end of this film?  I guess we’ll never know.  Unless of course Chan finally decides to make Armour of God 3: Chinese Zodiac like he’s been promising for years.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?

One final word on the DVD releases of this film.  Obviously, the western release is to be avoided at all costs (no Cantonese track, and some versions are edited down).  The Hong Kong Mega Star release is awful (non anamorphic, grotty, lousy subs – just horrible).  I picked up the Korean Fortune Star release a year or so ago, and I’ve just got around to watching it.  It’s fabulous!  Properly remastered, anamorphic and with near-perfect subs.  It makes all the difference.  If you don’t own this slice of Hong Kong brilliance, you really should do. 

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