Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: The Asian Invasion

Pardon the 3 day interruption in VJ service, but even junkies get burned out every once and a while. We’re nearing the end of our month long “week” of Indiana Jones knock offs and things are getting rough.  Let’s just say Patrick Swayze and The Asylum are not our favorite people right now (you’ll understand why over the next week).

As we’ve shown time and time again, after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) became a worldwide hit, everyone with a camera and a fedora was doing an imitation.  Not to be left out was the burgeoning Hong Kong film industry.  And while we never got a straight up scene for scene rip-off, those crazy Chinese made sure to work some archeological adventure into their films.

Jackie Chan delivered the earliest and perhaps best known of the Hong Kong Jones inspired film with ARMOR OF GOD (1987).  Following the stunning PROJECT A (1983) and the brilliant POLICE STORY (1985), Chan brought his archeologist style adventure on as Jackie (what a stretch) aka Asian Hawk, a former pop singer turned adventurer (!). He is called into service to help friend Alan (Alan Tam, another stretch) after their friend Laura (Rosamund Kwan) is kidnapped by some evil monks that want the other pieces of the treasure of the title.  Opening with Jackie taking on an African tribe, this is totally the Asian Indiana Jones bolstered by some insane stunts that Lucas and Spielberg would never attempt.  In fact, Jackie came closest to death while filming the opening and falling from a tree.  He cracked his skull on a rock and it left a big hole in his head.  No doubt this is how we can explain later decisions like the RUSH HOUR series, THE TUXEDO and THE KARATE KID remake.

The film proved to be Jackie’s biggest hit at the time and he returned with the big budget sequel ARMOR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR (1991).  This time around Jackie is given the task of tracking down some stolen Nazi gold.  That’s a slim plot that offers nothing more than an excuse for Jackie to kick some butt.  At the time this was the highest budgeted HK movie ever (roughly $15 million) and Jackie did everything bigger and better.  He shot all over the globe (Spain, Morocco, Hong Kong) and really delivered some amazing set pieces.  The last half hour inside the underground Nazi base is one of the highlights of the man’s astonishing career.  Naturally the film came out and was even more popular at the HK box office.  In fact, it was the biggest HK film of Jackie’s career until DRUNKEN MASTER II (1993) beat it (quick trivia: Chan’s biggest film ever at the HK box office was quasi-POLICE STORY sequel FIRST STRIKE [1996]; odd, ain’t it?).  Ever since the film came out Jackie has been talking about a third part.  Lately he’s been getting real serious about it, promising ARMOR OF GOD III: CHINESE ZODIAC will start shooting in 2011 and that it will be he last epic action movie. We’ll see, but we’re smart enough to know now that Jackie ain’t Jackie no more.  This new guy is Stepford Jackie.

While Jackie was gobbling up finances and shooting for years, the opposite end of the budget spectrum in Hong Kong was also adding some Indiana Jones flavor.  One such film is Wong Jing’s MAGIC CRYSTAL (1986), an action-adventure about an extraterrestrial jade rock.  Andy Lau stars as Andy Lo (so versatile!) aka Hunting Eagle (what’s with the nicknames?), a master thief who gets wrapped up in international intrigue after his archeologist friend Shen Kun (Phillip Ko) unearths the titular object in Greece.  Russian baddie Karov (Richard Norton) wants the object but Shen slips it into the luggage of Lo’s nephew Pin-Pin.  Back in Hong Kong the glowing rock befriends the little kid (shades of E.T.) and muuuuuch bad comedy ensues before the rock tells Pin-Pin to head back to Greece.  Naturally the annoying tyke is kidnapped and Lo, along with some Interpol agents (including Cynthia Rothrock), try to stop the bad guys.

Honestly this only gets into our breakdown thanks to the last 20 minutes that are set in a booby trapped cavern under some ancient Greek ruins.  The filmmakers directly lift the treacherous arrow spewing hallway from the opening of RAIDERS.  Of course, they make sure to have a guy get snuffed out by hundreds of them.  The final battle takes place in a large throne room where the calcified remains of an alien remain inside a UFO control booth (amazingly, it has left a recorded message for visitors in a modern language).  Everyone throws down in the brawl until Russian badguy Karov gets sucked into another dimension.  Wait a sec…aliens, magic crystals, spaceships and a Russian getting zapped into a vortex?  This is INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL!  Seriously, did LucasFilm screen this one?  If they did, they thankfully left out all the bad comedy (well, maybe).  Like all flicks by Wong Jing (who also co-stars as a “funny” sidekick), this is filled with awwwwful comedy for the first hour.  How bad? The comedic “highlight” is the crystal switching the hands and feet of a doofus.

It is a shame because there are some pretty damn good fights in this.  I’m surprised at how much fighting Andy Lau did on his own and 80s Norton and Rothrock were in their absolute prime here.  One could make an edit that removes all the comedy and you would have a pretty kickass 40 minute short film.  

Thankfully lame comedy doesn’t permeate THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986), one of the wildest and wackiest HK action flick to imitate Indiana. The film opens with Dr. Yuan Chen (Chin Siu Ho) and friend Wisely (Chow Yun Fat) telling a bevy of Asian babes about their craziest past adventure (thanks, Mr. Director, for letting us know they survive). Chen, it seems, had contracted a blood sickness while doing some anthropological work in Thailand.  He was saved by native Betsy, but her cure only lasted for a year. Twelve months later, Chen is visited by villager Heh Lung, who warns him of the curse and says he must return to Thailand to cure himself.  The disease quickly manifests in the form of loud popping blood blisters while Chen is getting it on with a white chick (major bummer!).  He consults with Wisely, who advises him to return to Thailand to cure himself.  Uh, didn’t Heh Lung just tell you that?  Anyway, the whole group heads there and prepares to battle with the Worm Tribe and their High Priest who likes to feed little children into a crusher so he can use their blood to resurrect their ancient King.

If I had to recommend one Asian flick that delivers the Indiana Jones level of thrills, this would be it.  Not only does it carry over the adventure elements (the sacrificing of children is like TEMPLE OF DOOM), but it excessively goes overboard on them.  How over-the-top is this movie? There is a throw away gag where a helper is caught in a booby trap between two bamboo trees and graphically ripped in half.  Later, there is a bit at the end where a guard unnecessarily gets shot with an arrow and blasted by a shotgun at the same time.  You have to love that level of ridiculousness.  It is also worth noting that the supporting character of Wisely is a popular Asian adventurer character started in novels in the 1960s.  Like MAGIC CRYSTAL, the last 20 minutes are really where the Indiana Jones replication lies with a fight on a giant Buddha statue.  The head even falls off it and we get a variation of the giant boulder scene from RAIDERS.  Director Ngai Kai Lam – who later made the equally crazy cult flicks THE STORY OF RICKY (1991) and THE CAT (1992) – leaves no exploitation stone unturned. You can count on a fight or something crazy happening every five minutes.  And that is why we love this flick!

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