Film Review: Blood Money (1974)

Also known as: El kárate, el Colt y el impostor (original Spanish title), The Stranger and the Gunfighter (alternate), Dakota (French video title)
Release Date: 1974 (Spain)
Directed by: Antonio Margheriti (credited as Anthony Dawson)
Written by: Giovanni Simonelli, Antonio Margheriti, Barth Jules Sussman
Music by: Carlo Savina
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Lo Lieh, Patty Shepard, Femi Benussi

Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, Harbor Productions, Shaw Brothers Studio, Midega Films, Columbia Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

The king of the spaghetti westerns that isn’t Clint Eastwood teams up with the king of kung fu movies that isn’t Bruce Lee. Sure, that sounds like a diss but I am a pretty big fan of Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. Both men owned the 1970s in their own way, so seeing them come together is pretty interesting.

Sadly though, their talents and their team-up were wasted in this picture, which just doesn’t live up to whatever hype my mind might have had in the ’70s when this actually went down.

The film’s premise is pretty interesting though. Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh) journeys to America from China in search of his uncle’s fortune. He discovers that his uncle is dead and the only man that knows where his body is, is the one accused of murdering him, an Old West gunslinger named Dakota (Lee Van Cleef). Once the uncle’s body is found, the pair find clues that point to the fortune. This then becomes a real spaghetti western treasure hunting movie with kung fu flair. The reluctant pair must track down the uncle’s mistresses, each of whom have a section of the treasure map tattooed on their bums. Ultimately, the two men become friends and kick a lot of ass.

The problem with the movie is that the execution is poor and really kind of lazy. Van Cleef and Lieh are both solid but the script just isn’t there and everything is fairly pedestrian. This is a film that is an example of wasted potential. But then again, a studio specializing in spaghetti westerns didn’t have much experience creating kung fu pictures just as Shaw Brothers, even with their input on kung fu filmmaking, didn’t know how to make westerns. And really, I’m not sure how much input Shaw Brothers actually had, it seems pretty minuscule.

Still, if you like both of these men, this is worth checking out. It’s not a total waste but it won’t get you pumped up either.

Film Review: Executioners From Shaolin (1977)

Also known as: Hong Xi Guan (original Mandarin title), The Executioners of Death (original US dubbed version), Shaolin Executioners (worldwide English video title)
Release Date: February 16th, 1977 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Lau Kar-leung
Written by: Kuang Ni
Music by: Yung-yu Chen
Cast: Chen Kuan-tai, Li-Li Li, Wong Yue, Lo Lieh, Gordon Liu

Shaw Brothers Studio, 98 Minutes

Review:

“Tiger style!” – Pai Mei

For fans of the Kill Bill films, this is a picture that has some relevance to those movies. First of all, it features Pai Mei as the story’s main villain. He was the old Chinese kung fu master that trained the Bride in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Also, Quentin Tarantino used one of the main actors from this film in his Kill Bill films: Gordon Liu. Liu actually plays Pai Mei in Kill Bill: Volume 2 and he also played Johnny Mo in Kill Bill: Volume 1.

This film was also very influential on the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, as they sampled Pai Mei’s line “Tiger style!” on their records and used a lot of the concepts and ideas from this film in their lyrics and their style.

Apart from the film’s pop culture influence, it is a pretty stellar kung fu epic. It is a historical drama with comedy elements sprinkled in to keep things mostly pretty light, even if we do get to witness some serious violence from time to time.

Directed by Lau Kar-leung, a guy who made several great pictures, Executioners From Shaolin has a great look with solid performances and enjoyable fight choreography. Pai Mei’s killer combo move is pretty cool and terrifying, after seeing what it can do in the incredibly stylized intro to the film during the credits sequence.

Kar-leung had a unique style that set him apart from other Hong Kong action directors. His intro scene was done in a style that became a signature of the director. I’ve actually posted that below, as opposed to a trailer like I usually do.

This film also stars Lo Lieh in one of my favorite roles he’s played. He was one of Hong Kong’s busiest actors and anything with him in it always makes a picture feel more legitimate than something similar that he’s not a part of.

A lot of kung fu movies all sort of just blend together but this is one that really has its own identity and stands tall. I love this movie and always have. When I rented it as a kid, it became one of those films I’d have to rent again and again, almost monthly.

The copies of this film that exist now are really good too. It is streaming for free for Prime members on Amazon Video and I have never seen this movie look so clean, clear and pristine.

Executioners From Shaolin is a hell of a lot of fun. If you are a fan of old school kung fu cinema, you really need to check this one out if you haven’t yet. It is one of many Pai Mei movies but I love the iconic character in this, probably above the other films.

Film Review: Blade Runner (1982)

Release Date: June 25th, 1982
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples
Based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Music by: Vangelis
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy, James Hong

The Ladd Company, Shaw Brothers, Blade Runner Partnership, Warner Bros., 113 Minutes (original workprint), 116 Minutes (original US theatrical), 117 Minutes (international theatrical), 114 Minutes (US television broadcast), 116 Minutes (The Director’s Cut), 117 Minutes (The Final Cut)  

Review:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” – Roy Batty

Blade Runner is a classic but I think my appreciation of it is different than that of most. While I see a lot of weaknesses and flaws with it, which I’ll explain, the pros most certainly outweigh the cons by a tremendous amount.

For me, Blade Runner is an incredibly slow paced film. Not a lot really happens in it. You quickly understand the setup and the hunt that is taking place, as well as the fact that the main character, Deckard, is falling in love with the very thing he is hunting. There are a lot of layers here that could be explored in more depth but everything is just sort of presented on the surface and not explored beyond a sort of subtle emotional response to the proceedings. You never really know what Deckard is thinking but the film also works in that regard, even if I feel that it makes it hard to align your emotions with the characters’.

Blade Runner is a very topical film. What I mean by that is that there are all these beautiful and mysterious things in the forefront but the substance of what is really behind it all isn’t greatly explored or understood. You have some clues with the conversations Deckard has with Rachael and Batty but most of the characters feel as soulless as the Replicants were intended to be. I don’t blame the acting, which is superb, I blame the ambiguous way that the film was written, as it leaves you perplexed and with more questions than answers, really. And frankly, it is hard to care about those questions without the emotional investment in the characters living in this world.

Speaking of which, Ridley Scott created such a cool and stunning world that I wanted to know more about it. I truly wanted to experience and live in it, alongside these characters, but it is hard to do that when everything feels so cold, emotionless and distant. But this also begs the question, which people have been asking for decades, is Deckard also a Replicant and if so, is that what the tone of the film is very blatantly implying? I would have to say yes but I guess that question won’t truly be answered until this film’s sequel finally comes out later this year, a 35 year wait since this picture came out.

As I already pointed out, the film takes place in an incredible looking world. While it is the Los Angeles of the future, two years from now to be exact, it is a cold, dark and dreary place highlighted by flaming industrial smokestacks and neon signs. Scott made his future Los Angeles look otherworldly and menacing, tapping into the fears of where we could find ourselves in a world that further urbanizes itself, where we are all living in dark metropolises blanketed by dark smoky skies.

The music of the film, created by Vangelis, is absolutely perfect. It is one of the best scores ever produced for a film and its magnificence will be hard to top in the upcoming sequel. The end titles song of the film is one of my favorite pieces of music ever created.

The film is very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In reality, it just shares a few concepts and ideas and Blade Runner is really its own thing, where Dick’s novel was more or less the kernel of an idea that Hampton Fancher and David Peoples turned into this tech-noir tale. Honestly, someone could do a true adaptation of the novel and no one would probably pick up on it being the same material. But Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors of all-time and anything inspired by his work will get my attention. But I probably wouldn’t have found his work as early as I did in life, had it not been for this movie and really, this film is what gave his work notoriety, after his death.

Blade Runner is not a film for everyone. In fact, when I have shown it to people over the years, I’ve gotten more negative or baffled responses than I have positive ones. I think it is a film that works for those who already know it or who grew up in a time when it was well-known. There was nothing like it at the time but there was a lot like it after it made its impact on pop culture. I don’t think that The Terminator would have been quite the same film had Blade Runner not come out two years before it.

It will be interesting to see where a sequel can go and what it answers and how. But we’ve got a month or so to wait for that. But it’s already been over 35 years, so what’s a month?

Film Review: The Super Inframan (1975)

Also known as: Chinese Superman (China)
Release Date: August 1st, 1975
Directed by: Hua Shan
Written by: Ni Kuang
Music by: Frankie Chan
Cast: Danny Lee, Wang Hsieh, Terry Lau, Yuan Man-tzu, Bruce Le, Kong Yeung, Dana Shum, Lin Wen-wei, Lu Sheng, Fanny Leung

Shaw Brothers Studio, 84 Minutes

Review:

“There are other weapons I haven’t given you as yet. For success it’s essential you have thunderball fists.” – Professor

Tokusatsu doesn’t just have to be a Japanese thing, as the Chinese proved with The Super Inframan, known in China as Chinese Superman.

This film sees a guy from a defense force take up the mantle of a new superhero named Inframan after major cities are destroyed by Demon Princess Elzebub (a.k.a. Princess Dragonmon), who was awoken from a 10 million year sleep. The setup is similar to a typical Ultraman series. It also has elements similar to the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai shows.

What you have here is an indestructible hero that fights monsters of human size, giant size and of various styles. We’ve got tokusatsu, kaiju, kung fu and crazy characters.

Demon Princess Elzebub is particularly unique in that her costume, color scheme and throne room seem to suggest that she was the inspiration for the supervillain Serpentor from the 80s G.I. Joe cartoon, comics and toy line. She also inspired certain traits in Kinga Forester, the villain of the newly revived Mystery Science Theater 3000. Elzebub’s henchmen, the Skeleton Ghosts, most certainly were the template for Kinga Forester’s Skeleton Crew a.k.a. the Boneheads.

The Super Inframan also has historical significance. To start, it is the first superhero film to ever be produced by a Hong Kong studio. In this case, Shaw Brothers, who are known for making some of the greatest kung fu classics of all-time. Also, it was the first film to be promoted using a hot air balloon over Hong Kong. Additionally, it is the first film where Shaw Brothers used storyboards.

As a film, Super Inframan is pretty impressive. Regardless of the production limitations, it is a slick and good looking movie. Sure, the monsters are hokey and the costumes bizarre and goofy but the production value looks a step above similar properties from its era.

The film also stars Danny Lee before he became a Hong Kong megastar. Bruce Le (yes, “Le” with one “e”) is in this. He would become one of the most used actors during the Brucesploitation craze.

The Super Inframan is a much better movie than I thought it would be. I’ve been a big tokusatsu and kaiju fan my entire life but this motion picture has eluded me until recently.

Film Review: Five Fingers of Death (1972)

Also known as: King Boxer, Tiān xià dì yī quán, lit. Number One Fist in the World (Hong Kong)
Release Date: April 28th, 1972 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Jeong Chang-hwa
Written by: Chiang Yang
Music by: Chen Yung-yu
Cast: Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Wang Chin-feng, Bolo Yeung

Shaw Brothers Studio, 97 Minutes

king-boxerReview:

Five Fingers of Death (or King Boxer, as it’s also known) is a stupendous martial arts film from Hong Kong. It came out just before Bruce Lee helped the genre explode internationally. It may be less popular than the pictures of Lee or Jackie Chan but it is absolutely amazing and I rank it above the majority of Lee and Chan’s work.

The film stars Lo Lieh. While he never became an international superstar like Lee or Chan, he was in a ton of films and worked hard to give great performances on screen. He may not have been as accomplished as those two bigger stars, as far as his fighting abilities, showmanship and charisma but he could still hold his own and was better than most.

The film follows Lieh’s Chao Chih-Hao. He leaves his first teacher to train under a more advanced instructor. While at the new school, he becomes caught up in its rivalry with a local tyrant and his lethal henchmen. Over the course of the film, Chih-Hao impresses his new teacher enough to be given the secret of the Iron Fist technique. Everything comes to a head in a tournament but the film goes beyond the traditional climax, as things continue beyond that.

The film has a lot of intertwined characters and stories but it does a good job of managing it all and giving us a non-traditional plot structure. Just now revisiting it for the first time in years, I’m pretty sure that The Karate Kid, the original one, took the bulk of its story from Five Fingers of Death. Seriously, the more I think about it, the more connections I make between the two films. Except people didn’t get murdered or have their eyeballs ripped out in The Karate Kid.

The fight choreography is really good. The cinematography is also really solid. I have always enjoyed the scenes where Chih-Hao channels the Iron Fist power and the filmmakers use hot red lights to highlight his hands.

Five Fingers of Death has also held up really well, especially in comparison to other Hong Kong kung fu movies. It feels like a top notch production with superior camera work, lighting and a very pristine look.