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Hot Potato (1975) June 26, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Bad Films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Oscar Williams  Main cast: Jim Kelly; George Memmoli; Geoffrey Binney; Irene Tsu; Judith Brown  Territory: USA

By 1975, Warner Bros were struggling to find a vehicle to propel Jim “Enter the Dragon” Kelly into the big time, and Hot Potato is a rather transparent attempt to recreate Bruce Lee’s hit on a smaller budget and with a wider audience in mind.  And without Robert Clouse behind the camera…

Filmed entirely in Thailand, and with a deliberate variation on the Enter the Dragon score, Hot Potato is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Blaxploitation flick Black Belt Jones, although this is an entirely different animal.  Whereas the earlier film was a low-budget, gritty, urban action film, this has a mainly white (and Asian) cast, comedy sound effects, and family-friendly humour.

The plot features a Han-lite villain in Mr Rangoon, whose villainy is somewhat vague but, of course, ruthless.  He and his cronies kidnap a senator’s daughter for ransom, leading the US military to send in its top man – Jones (Kelly).  Thankfully, he is not once referred to as “Belt” in this instalment.  Jones recruits his team – a random pair of idiots – and heads off to find Rangoon and rescue the hostage.  Along the way, they encounter their contact, who is…gasp…a woman.

For years, Hot Potato and its predecessor have only been available on grainy, full screen, bootleg releases.  However, Warner Bros have now released these films, along with Black Sampson and another Kelly vehicle Three the Hard Way in their Urban Action Collection (sadly only available on Region 1 at present) and the difference is quite staggering.  While the audio is still shaky (some performers’ voices appear to be overdubbed – quite badly), the widescreen, remastered (I assume) presentation transforms the film, making it seem much more than a cheap action movie.  And for fans of Hong Kong cinema, you get to see Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying and Eric Tsang as stuntmen – although they reappear in virtually every action scene, making it seem like Rangoon has infinitely regenerating henchmen.

Sadly, it still doesn’t disguise the fact that it really isn’t a very good film.  While well meaning, the crude and corny humour and “zany” characters can often irritate.  The comedy isn’t particularly funny (and has dated very badly indeed) and the attempts at depth – Johnny Chicago (Binney) has a tragic secret, and falls for the senator’s daughter’s double - are entirely superficial.  In fact, it’s the latter’s death at the hands of Rangoon that provides the best laugh.  But don’t worry; the heartbroken Chicago gets over it very quickly.

hot-potato.jpg 

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!  IT’S ALL HAPPENING AGAIN!!!”

Hot Potato is regarded very badly amongst genre fans – even more so than Black Belt Jones.  And while I’m probably one of its biggest supporters, even I have to admit it is sometimes a bit of an ordeal to sit through.  And what the title refers to is never alluded to – all of which means this particular potato is half baked indeed.

Dirty Ho (1979) November 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1970s films, Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Starring: Wong Yu; Lau Kar-Fai; Lo Lieh; Johnny Wang; Wilson Tong  Territory: Hong Kong

I’m astounded to discover that in all the years I’ve been writing about East Asian films that I’ve never done a review for this film.  This is even stranger considering the fact that I watch it fairly regularly and the film’s relative high-profile status as a bit of a kung-fu classic. 

Dirty Ho pairs a Manchu prince as the main protagonist (yes, you read that right) with a jewellery thief with a good heart.  The former plays a game of one-uppmanship with the young scoundrel at a brothel, both using their monetary muscle to woo the ladies.  From there, the two form an unlikely friendship after Ho mistakenly believes he’s been poisoned by one of Wong’s courtesans and must rely on the Manchu’s rare medicine to save his life.  In fact, Wong poisoned the youngster himself, and needs the help of a good-hearted man to thwart a plot by one of his brothers to assassinate him.

Dirty Ho
In 1979, after the success of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master, everyone was churning out kung fu comedies with varying degrees of success.  Personally, I’ve never been very taken with the type of comedy used in Shaw Brothers films, and there are more than a few moments during Dirty Ho where you wonder what the hell is supposed to be so funny.  But there are a few laughs to be had along the way, including a scene parodying the One-Armed Swordsman character.  But it’s the scenes in which Wong is invited to high-society meetings that provide the most laughs.  Disguised as art collectors and antique dealers, these assassins attempt to kill off Wong while observing social etiquette, and Wong reciprocates by keeping up the illusion of cordial civility while counterattacking. 

I have to admit that the sheen of greatness has worn off this classic a little for me, but I still enjoy some parts.  The ambush scene that takes place in a wind-strewn deserted town bowled me over the first time I saw it on VHS and it still impresses me now.  You are guaranteed a certain level of competence with Lau Kar-Leung’s fight choreography, and he doesn’t let down for the most part.  I still feel that the ending, after a climactic fight that I feel goes on too long, is a disappointment.  On one hand, I like the fact that the “bigger picture” is left unresolved, but on the other, I am left disappointed that the whole thing gets wrapped up so abruptly.  Having said all that, there’s no denying Dirty Ho’s status as a kung fu classic, and it is still one of the more memorable films from the period.

Yakuza Deka 2: The Assassin (1970) August 23, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Wacko , add a comment

Director: Yukio Noda  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Ryohei Uchida; Fumio Watanabe; Toshiaki Minami  Territory: Japan

There’s a real sense of a production line with successful Japanese action sequels of the 70s.  This sequel to the incredibly good fun Yakuza Deka was produced in the same year as the original, a practice certainly not uncommon at the time.

Chiba is Hayata again in another plot to infiltrate Yakuza gangs.  In fact, the plot is so similar to the original film that it sometimes feels like a remake.  In this one, though, the focus is on the deadliest threat to the nation’s youth: marijuana.  Hayata goes undercover and almost gasps aloud when opening the door to a marijuana party.  Cue lots of young female topless stoners, psychedelic music and imagery…and Chiba tripping on pot.  This scene, along with Chiba’s outlandish wardrobe, is worth the price of the DVD alone.

THe Assassin

Although slightly less comedic in tone than the original, Yakuza Deka II nevertheless shows Chiba had a flair for physical comedy.  And of course, he handles the action scenes with his customary flair.  Although not as good as the original, the film still boasts a thrilling climax and a star at his athletic best.  But the best line goes to a young moll forced to sleep with Chiba – afterwards, she says philosophically “it’s been more pleasurable than I thought”.  How I long for a woman to say that to me

Yakuza Deka (1974) August 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Wacko , add a comment

Director: Yukio Noda  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Ryoji Hayama; Rinichi Yamamoto  Territory: Japan

Yakuza Deka’s plot is largely perfunctory and can be summed up in a few words: undercover cop infiltrates two Yakuza gangs, spreading mayhem and pitting them against each other.  While this might sound like an updated Yojimbo, in reality any similarity is entirely coincidental and more than likely unintentional.

More of an action film than a full-on gangster flick, Yakuza Deka is one of the few pre-Street Fighter Sonny Chiba films to be widely available in the west.  The reason is obvious – Chiba gets to scrap with just about everyone on both sides of the law, and throws in some great stunts for good measure.  Chiba is Hayata, a lone wolf cop with more in common with the Yakuza than his employers and remarks with great feeling that “I’m a stray dog that wags its tail for anyone who feeds me”.

Yakuza DekaChiba meets his blind date…

Not that intense character studies are the order of the day here.  Yakuza Deka is a no-brainer action thriller with more than a few cheap laughs to lighten the mood included at no extra cost.  Mind you, the action scenes are more sophisticated than you might think given the age of the film, and Chiba’s stuntwork is occasionally pretty astonishing.  Plus, for all fans of this sort of thing, there’s plenty of the head-spinning “trendy” cinematography that locks these sort of movies in their age.

I’ve come to appreciate Yakuza Deka more over the last couple of years.  Like so many Japanese actioners from the heady 70s, it can never be accused of any great depth or subtlety, but for fans of the genre it provides more than adequate bang for the buck.

The Executioner II: Karate Inferno (1974) August 18, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Wacko, Bad Films , add a comment

Director: Teruo Ishii  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Makoto Satô; Eiji Go; Yutaka Nakajima; Etsuko Shiomi  Territory: Japan

These Sonny Chiba films from the 70s (and especially their sequels) are a lot like cinematic fast food – cheap, dirty, low quality fodder that can also satisfy completely when you’re in the mood.  This sequel to The Executioner is completely divorced from its parent, relying more on toilet humour than cheap gore and action.

In fact, the subtitle Karate Inferno seems conspicuously misplaced – the film boast but two action scenes.  The film’s plot, if you want to call it that, is about a jewel heist in which our trio of unlikely heroes con a paraplegic out of a priceless necklace.  If that sounds weird, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  The acting is particularly poor from the westerners (as usual) and said paraplegic (another westerner) is awful, although that doesn’t stop Chiba looking up her skirt when she’s asleep (yes, it’s that kind of film).  While I think about it, the opening credits are a wonder in themselves – promising stunts, fights and boobs galore.  I don’t remember seeing that many bare breasts in the actual film, but perhaps I miscounted. 

Sonny Chiba - The Executioner 2

There’s no escaping the fact that The Executioner II is primarily a comedy though.  And the comedy is extremely low-brow, and mostly unfunny to today’s sophisticated audience.  Having said that, like anything of this nature, when one joke out of a hundred hits the spot it really makes you laugh, and a running gag involving a glued hand to a table had me chuckling along.  There are only so many fart gags I can stand though, and the humour can wear very thin.

But the thing is, those two action scenes I mentioned earlier are actually pretty excellent.  In particular, the climax is outstanding.  And no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to despise the movie.  It’s charmingly naff, vulgar and unnecessary, and I occasionally like that in a film.

The Accidental Spy (2001) August 4, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Teddy Chen  Starring: Jackie Chan; Vivian Hsu; Eric Tsang  Territory: Hong Kong 

Opportunist and sports-goods worker Buck (Jackie Chan) foils a bank raid and unwittingly gets involved with a chemical weapon ring.

The plot of Accidental Spy is all over the place.  I mean, Jackie Chan’s stories have never been the main selling point of his movies, but something weird happened to his Hong Kong films after Rumble in the Bronx, with confusing, meandering, muddled plots all over the place.  After seeing this about five times, I can more or less follow what’s happening now, but understanding does not necessarily lead to a more enjoyable experience as the underlying plot is serviceable at best.  

The film suffers from a couple of problems.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – when Hong Kong film makers shoot in English, it really doesn’t work.  And there’s a fair amount of English dialogue in Accidental Spy.  The Turkish bank manager who repeatedly asks Buck “are you fine?” after spilling tea on him gets me cringing every time.  Elsewhere, Chan’s delivery of English lines seem stilted and staged.  Surely someone could have hired an English language coach?  
 

Also the supporting cast is instantly forgettable.  Take Vivian Hsu - she’s nice to look at, but her character is dull, dull, dull. And Eric Tsang is, well, Eric Tsang.  Actually, he provides a laugh or two as the seedy private eye, so I can’t complain too much.  Those that loved Brad Allen’s contribution to Gorgeous (and I’m one of them) will be disappointed to learn that he’s pretty much invisible through most of this. However, watching this with the prior knowledge of everything that would come after, Accidental Spy does have some neat touches and a couple of great action scenes.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s the last of the “traditional” Jackie Chan action comedies, even if by now the star had already lost a step or two and dropped the more obviously dangerous stunts.  The Turkish bath scene in particular is brilliant, and sporadic flashes of genius (such as a skyscraper demolition scene) showed that there was still a lot of life left in the old dog.  

Jackie Chan in Accidental Spy
No review of Accidental Spy is complete without mention of the Speed-style climax.  Often seen as a cop-out, it is undoubtedly a weak ending and definitely not one that fans were hoping for.  But I’m not terribly bothered about it any more.  Sure, I would have liked something (anything) else, but I don’t think it wrecks the film. 

For so long, this film has been only available (in its original format anyway) in extremely poor quality home video editions.  I had this on VCD originally, and I have to assume it was a pirate edition as the screen turns monochrome for the finale.  The Universe DVD was little better, as it had a rubbish blurred transfer.  However, the new(ish) DVD from Kam & Ronson provides a crisp, anamorphic, digitally remastered transfer which is simply head and shoulders above any other version of the film I’ve seen before.  Accidental Spy is certainly flawed, but at least now it looks a lot better than it ever did.

Rob-B-Hood (2006) July 24, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Louis Koo; Michael Hui; Charlene Choi; Yuen Biao  Territory: Hong Kong 

Thongs (Jackie Chan) and Octopus (Louis Koo) are burglars and safe crackers under the leadership of The Landlord (Michael Hui). The three come into the care of a small baby when The Landlord takes a big job from a high paying gangster.

This film was retitled Robin-B-Hood for the western market, and you have to wonder why they bothered – it’s a terrible title that fails to clarify the pun that straddles English and Cantonese and fails to make sense in either.  It’s best to just forget the title altogether.

Approaching Rob-B-Hood in the same spirit of all the other recent (i.e. within the last decade) films of Jackie Chan, I expected to enjoy it more second time around.  However, I have to admit the opposite is probably true.  I don’t like young children in movies at the best of times, and babies even more so.  And cute babies are the worst – there’s a tacit implication that only cute babies have any worth, and that if this young spud was an ugly little git, no one would care when he nearly bites the bullet in the final reel.  To say that isn’t really giving anything away – you always know there’s going to be grave peril and that the little blighter is going to pull through in the end.

Rob-B-Hood

Certain other things pissed me off about Rob-B-Hood.  The whole “two gay dads” routine brought back bad memories of Sammo Hung at his most abrasive and ignorant – is it really funny that two men should be in charge of a baby?  On a similar note, I still don’t know what all the stuff with the gay security van drivers is all about – I assume it’s a reference to some other work but it goes right over my head.

Thankfully, there are good moments.  Louis Koo is solid, Michael Hui is pretty darn funny (although it’s a shame Sammo Hung didn’t take part) and Yuen Biao has a great action scene.  It’s a crying shame he doesn’t have more screen time, as the scene where he and Chan get in a rumble in Jackie’s appartment is a definite highlight.  Chan himself shares screen time with his co-stars more than usual, and is best when in full action mode, despite a decent acting scene with his father (veteran Ku Feng).  The action scenes are…well…let’s just say they could be a lot worse.  Jackie is wired up an awful lot - even when you don’t think he needs to be – but some of the stunts look pretty impressive. 

It’s that damn baby I can’t get past though.  Speaking as someone who detested that bit in Operation Condor when the baby in the pram went into the traffic and Jackie heroically saved it, I did not relish the same idea stretched over a feature length movie, which is essentially what we have here.  And this is no ninety-minute quickie – Rob-B-Hood lasts nearly two-hours-and-fifteen minutes long in its extended cut.  This seems longer than necessary even for the most devoted Jackie Chan fan.

Little Big Soldier (2010) July 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 2010s films , add a comment

Director: Ding Sheng  Starring: Jackie Chan; Leehom Wang; Lin Peng  Territory: China/Hong Kong

A lowly deserter in the Liang army (Jackie Chan) captures the general of the opposing Wei army (Leehom Wang) by playing dead and waiting to see what happened when the dust settled.  Planning to trade in the general in return for a discharge from the army, the former farmer and his captive cross the country, facing common foes, bonding and separating along the way.

It’s pretty safe to say the typical brand of Jackie Chan film is completely dead and buried, and what we’re left with is often confusing to the older fans.  However, Little Big Soldier is by some distance a more immediate and satisfying film than he has produced for a good many years.

A glance at the plot synopsis will probably make it obvious that this is little more than a road movie set in ancient China.  But actually, that is the movie’s greatest strength – the familiarity of theme lets the viewer just sit back and let things unfold in their own inevitable way.  Yes, the pair are enemies to start with, but gain respect and understanding from each other along their travels.  The simplicity of the plot I found refreshing after a glut of similarly-set period epics (mainly of which are excellent, I may add hastily).

Little Big Soldier

Little Big Soldier is a sight better than the trailer I saw, which I must say pitched the film as a serious period epic (Red Cliff, you have a lot to answer for!).  In fact, Little Big Soldier has quite a large comic element, although it never threatens to overshadow the drama.  The film works best when focussed on the two lead characters, and sometimes when the emphasis shifts on to the supporting cast, the interest dips a little.

I have to admit not being at all familiar with director Ding Sheng’s work, but he makes a good job on the movie, and the now-obligatory beautiful landscape shots look suitable impressive and breathtaking.  His film is certainly an enjoyable little time-passer, and while it is doubtful if it will shake the movie world to its very foundations, it is well worth a spin.

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. 

Super Snooper (1980) April 26, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1980s films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Sergio Corbucci  Starring: Terence Hill; Ernest Borgnine; Marc Lawrence  Territory: Italy; USA; Spain

Conscientious cop Dave Speed (Terence Hill) accidentally gets irradiated with Red Plutonium in a government experiment while serving a routine traffic violation ticket.  The accident bestows super powers on him, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering partner Sergeant Dunlop (Ernest Borgnine).  The only problem is, Speed’s powers abruptly disappear whenever he sees the colour red…

This is one of those films that seriously wowed me as a kid.  So much so, in fact, that out of, say Jaws, Star Wars and Super Snooper, I would have had a tough time choosing my favourite.  I think the fact that the movie was not readily available on home video added to the mystique a lot.

Seeing it as an adult is a different experience altogether, and of course time has a harsh way of treating comedy sometimes.  Directed by Sergio Corbucci of Django and The Great Silence fame (two films I really must get around to re-watching and writing about at some point), there is a feeling that this movie was banged out quickly.  Certainly it had no budget to speak of.  But cheap quickies are often what this blog’s about, and Super Snooper remains a fun film if you have low expectations and don’t examine the cracks too carefully.

Super Snooper

Yes, there are some pretty glaring anomalies.  It strikes me as really odd, for instance, that after Speed’s accident, Dunlop is busted down to traffic cop and out directing cars immediately following his friend’s apparent death.  But I’ve come to accept such oddities as being in line with European sensibilities and just kind of go with the flow these days.

There are a few nods to Hill’s westerns with Speed’s love of cowboy hats and beans, and the knockabout humour is all present and accounted for.  The tale of Speed’s downfall is told in flashback (a device I have a particular weakness for, as regular readers will attest to) and you can’t help rooting for the guy.  As a side note, I happen to think this film had quite an influence on my views on the death penalty – how can such a nice guy as Dave Speed be on Death Row?  So file Super Snooper alongside The Green Mile in your video collection!

Super Snooper is only sporadically funny these days, but there’s still at least one belly-laugh in there and the hokey effects just add to the charm.  To say nothing of the catchy and damn impossible to forget disco theme tune.  Nostalia is what it used to be.  Almost.

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