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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.

Zatoichi at Large (1972) October 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Kazuo Mori  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Rentaro Mikuni; Hisaya Morishige  Territory: Japan

Ten years after the first installment of Zatoichi, we find ourselves on the twenty-second sequel.  That’s right, someone sure knew how to churn out a winning formula.  Having seen none of the intervening titles in the sequence (yet), I can’t comment on their quality, but you can see that the series had travelled quite far into cheap exploitation from their relatively classy beginning.

But while Zatoichi at Large occasionally relies on toilet humour and bizarre sideshows, there is still an element of his former chivalry and honour.  Ichi is wrongly accused of robbery and murder by a swordsman he admires while saving a town from a ruthless yakuza gang.  Instead of cutting his accusers to ribbons, he instead apologises and tries to pay back the “stolen” ryo. 

zatoichi-at-large.jpg

Like a lot of Japan’s action cinema from this period, the film is superficial, throwaway but still strangely enjoyable.  And of course Ichi is still a draw.  But doubters to my “Zatoichi is gay” theory will be dealt a hammer blow at the scene where he disrobes a group of men with his sword and asks them to dance naked for him.  Yes, he might say to a woman that she has a beautiful body, but he is nevertheless blind and isn’t fooling anyone.  Well, not me anyway.

Here’s a small but important point for anyone wishing to check this film out – Zatoichi at Large has been released in the UK mistakenly labelled at Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

Shogun’s Samurai (1978) September 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , add a comment

Director: Kenji Fukasaku  Starring: Hiroki Matsukata; Teruhiko Saigo; Sonny Chiba; Etsuko Shihomi  Territory: Japan

Notable for being the only film in history to have more than one million people named in the opening credits*, this film (which is also more accurately called Intrigue of the Yagyu Clan) is a feudal-era tale of backstabbing, warring brothers vying for the role of Shogun following the sudden and suspicious death of their father.

Epic and not a little confusing, Shogun’s Samurai is not a film to dip in and out of.  The ensemble cast is indeed massive, and features the legendary Toshiro Mifune in a relatively minor role.  The movie’s greatest strength is the character development, and the fact that you genuinely don’t know who is going to take the seat of power in the end.

Shogun's Samurai

But a rather unfair comparison springs to mind about halfway through and sadly just doesn’t go away: Kurosawa would have done it better.  Although being sub-Kurosawa (but what isn’t?), Shogun’s Samurai is more than worthy of a viewing.  I would have liked a tighter script with the trimming of a few of the more minor characters, but there is still much to recommend about the movie.  Not least Sonny Chiba running around in an eye patch cutting people up left, right and centre.  Oh yes…

*This is not true, but it certainly feels like it.

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.

Golgo 13 (1978) August 11, 2010

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

Director: Yukio Noda  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Ga Lun; Etsuko Shihomi  Territory: Japan/Hong Kong

Golgo 13 is a twisting tale of a professional hitman (the ultra-cool Sonny Chiba) hired to take out Hong Kong’s drug kingpin.  Opposing him is Agent Smithy (Ga Lun), a tough Kowloon cop.  Based on a long-running Japanese Manga, the action is spread over the urban sprawls of Hong Kong, Kyoto and Tokyo, showing the locations at their gritty 70s best. 

One of the best things about the film is the cinematography and funky style.  There are some great shots of Hong Kong in here, and Sonny Chiba is shot at his tough-as-nails best.  It all looks very cool, with the 70s fashions being flaunted about - flared trousers and ultra-wide shirt lapels are the order of the day.  I just find films from this era so fun to watch, and I’d love to be able to pull off Chiba’s white suit!  Added to this is a really funky (or tacky, depending on your point of view) jazz score to the movie.   

Golgo 13
So we’ve established that Golgo 13 looks and sounds great.  But is the film itself great?  Sadly, I doubt if anyone could call it a great piece of cinema.  It never quite manages to be as good as you think it’s going to be.  For example, Etsuko Shihomi is great but is woefully underused, and the plot can meander needlessly.  And there’s a truly mad scene where a factory is being attacked by the cops. One injured man stumbles around a switch marked with a big sign saying “DON’T TOUCH”.  He accidentally stumbles over it, flips the switch and KABOOM!  The whole place is blown to smithereens.  Seriously, did no one do a Health and Safety Risk Assessment on this place?  Presumably not, as it’s only a lair for henchmen – but why keep a switch around the place whose sole intention is to blow the factory up?  It’s asking for trouble!  At least cover the bloody thing up or something.  Sheesh!  Oh, and this is one of those films where everyone, including Englishmen and people from the fictional Poranian Republic speak fluent Japanese, even to each other. 

But against everything that can be held against it, Golgo 13’s faults can be overlooked by its merits.  And the main one is the star’s obvious charisma and the film’s great action scenes, including one fantastic stunt where Chiba climbs down to the ground from the top of a moving double decker bus – eight years beofre Jackie Chan started playing with buses for his Police Story saga.

So, for all its faults, Golgo 13 is nevertheless quite fun to watch.  If you like Yakuza films, goofy 70s thrillers or martial arts movies, you should probably find quite a lot to like about Golgo 13, as it sprinkles a mixture of genres together to make a decent, if occasionally bonkers, movie.

The Killing Machine (1975) July 28, 2010

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

Director: Norifumi Suzuki  Starring: Sonny Chiba; Yutaka Nakajima; Makoto Satô  Territory: Japan

The Killing Machine is a fanciful biopic of Doshin Sho, real-life creator of Shorinji Kempo (incidentally, the film’s proper tile).  Starring Sonny Chiba as the titular character, the film is a strange flag-waving morality tale that mixes extreme violence with melodrama, which are not normally easy bedfellows.

Sho is portrayed as an earnestly heroic and righteous man to the point of almost absurdity.  After fighting for the Japanese during World War Two, he upholds honour and dignity against the corrupt Chinese victors – which can be a little difficult to take knowing what the Japanese did to China during their occupation.  Nevertheless, Sho himself is of course above nationalistic squabbles, and after his repatriation sets about helping those less fortunate than himself.  He is shown as a father-figure for orphans, a fearless opponent of the Yakuza, and an all-round swell guy.

Sonny Chiba The Killing Machine

Of course, being a Sonny Chiba film and a tale of martial arts and revenge, there’s also a fair dollop of action here.  And it’s not too shabby, either.  Lots of blood and gore are mixed with the action (he rips off the genitals of a would-be rapist and feeds them to a stray dog) and most of it is reasonably well shot and engaging. 

Along his travels, Sho befriends an unfortunate woman played by Yutaka Nakajima.  I found her character totally hilarious – it seems to me she is determined to be a prostitute, no matter how many times Sho intervenes.  You have to see it to know what I mean, but she really set my sick sense of humour going.  Needless to say, she achieves her goal of turning tricks while Sho’s back is turned (probably for about five minutes) and contracts a hideous, non-specific fatal sex disease.  Ahh.

Anyway, with so much going for it, people are often surprised that I’m quite lukewarm to The Killing Machine.  And sometimes I am too, to be honest.  It’s all the melodrama that gets in the way for me.  I can take all the jingoistic nonsense you care to throw at me, and all the cheesy low-budget slapdashery is likely to make me more enamoured of the film than not.  But throw in a bunch of small kids crying and I just switch off.  Still, fans of the genre are generally keen on the movie, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially as I grudgingly find so much of it quite fun myself.

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.

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