You know who had a hell of a studio? Those Shaw Brothers. As far as a company that develops a formula and evolves an artform into a recognizable “brand,” those guys were tops. Within their voluminous catalog are hundreds of period martial arts films, including some of the best ever made, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and THE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER being my favorites of the small percentage I’ve seen. I’m sure I’ll be watching these for the rest of my life and never see all of the good ones or get tired of their approach.
But it’s still a special treat, an exotic delicacy, a rare limited edition collectors item when you see one that breaks out of the usual template. For example I love SUPER INFRA-MAN, their version of a kaiju movie. MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG – the third film directed by Wong Jing, who recently did CHASING THE DRAGON with Donnie Yen – isn’t as unique as that, but it’s a beautiful thing: the talents of the Shaw Studios stunt teams and choreographers applied to a contemporary ’80s story with guns, grenades and motor vehicles. It came out in 1982, same year as FIRST BLOOD, but seems to predict that post-RAMBO-2 period with its Vietnam vets putting the team back together and returning to the jungle to fight drug lords. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as Sammo Hung’s amazing EASTERN CONDORS, but it’s a similar vibe of seeing tropes we love from American action being elaborated upon using techniques unique to Hong Kong cinema.
It would be difficult to exaggerate how hard the opening hit me. We get the familiar Shawscope logo and fanfare (please rise) followed by some silent credits (I love that anticipation/contemplation period as a movie is about to start) and then the title flies onto the screen and ignites a heavy electric guitar soundtrack that accompanies the perfect montage of unironic visual badass bonafides. First, the camera pans across a series of framed photos of Luo Li (Ti Lung, A BETTER TOMORROW 1 & 2, THE WARRIOR’S WAY) in his army uniform and with his war buddies
then dips to show a gun and some bullets on the table
and also this calculator!
Oh wait, no, I guess it’s the boxing gloves we’re supposed to be looking at. Also it shows some photos of motorcycles on the wall. I guess he likes motorcycles.
And here he is and he has a heavy duty mustache and he’s working out.
And he’s wearing these bikini briefs, it should be noted.
And he has a dart board, which is more of a bar activity than a fitness related one, but I assume it helps him with knife throwing and what not.
So he does alot of punching, and then this awesome flying double kick
and when he’s done, you know, he has a sweat towel and he’s just chillin so he casually goes over and, no big deal, he just OPENS HIS CABINET OF GUNS AND KNIVES AND SWORDS AND SHIT
and chooses a knife bigger than some pets just to, you know, hold and enjoy the feel of and what not.
If there’s a better way to introduce a movie character I don’t know what it is because that’s a trick question, there is not a better or even half as good way to introduce a movie character. This is it. This is the one.
But I actually wasn’t sure if this was gonna be the hero or the bad guy. The first thing he does is raid a building where sleazy dudes are drugging and raping young girls. He forces one of them to eat all his drugs, shoots up the place, puts on a motorcycle helmet, dives head first through a window at least six floors up, glides and flips and lands safely on top of a truck… then a second later emerges from the back of it riding a motorcycle!
That sounds kind of like a good guy. I suppose he’s an anti-hero. It has been pointed out to me that he doesn’t actually save the girl. What he does is kill the made man who caused his 15 year old niece to O.D. He was supposed to look after her after his brother died but he failed, so he feels it’s his duty to get revenge even though he believes he’ll be run out of town and have to return to his old job of smuggling medicine in Thailand.
It’s true, everybody’s pissed, but when he’s hired by He Ying (Yu On-On, SWORDSMAN II), heiress to one of the wealthiest families in Hong Kong, most of the gangs have to back off. She wants him to use his knowledge of Cambodia guerrilla camps to capture “Naiwen, AKA the Devil” (Phillip Ko, BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE, RETURN OF BASTARD SWORDSMAN, NINJA TERMINATOR), “a top assassin in Thailand” who she says shot her dad in the forehead a month ago and is blackmailing her with a tape of business secrets. She specifies that she wants Luo Li to use a team of six people and do it within 48 hours.
(What if he wanted seven people and they split the money? What if he wanted five and she doesn’t have to pay as much? The specificity is weird, but I guess it’s better than being too wishy-washy.)
You know how sometimes people (not me) seem to really be up the creek and then out of the blue an amazing gig just materializes for them? That’s what this is. And thankfully we get to see a whole recruitment section where he goes around to find the people he has in mind: his closest war buddy, a bomb expert, a Gold medalist sniper, an underground boxer and a thief who can open any lock.
The first time we see the team together they’re all on motorcycles wearing matching red helmets and jackets and white pants. And the next time it’s blue and white Kangol track suits. It may make you laugh and reference THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS but it’s also an example of the Shaw Brothers expertise, because these guys get involved in a bunch of huge brawls and if not for the matching clothes I would have no clue who’s who. It’s the same as giving the different factions in their period films identifiable uniforms with different colors.
But since this is 1982 and these are not Shaolin Monks fighting the Tartars it comes off very different. They’re more like some dudes who are very proud of the group they put together and it’s up to you whether they’re awesome or dorky. I want it on record that if I ever get hired by a rich crime lady or win the lottery or something I would consider living sort of like these guys. I wouldn’t be into guns or missions but maybe swords. And I would start a websight or magazine called Action Aficionado and I would recruit an elite team of writers, interviewers, illustrators and photographers who would do portraits of all the great veteran and up and coming action stars. And we would go to film festivals and conventions together wearing matching jumpsuits.
Anyway, hopefully it wouldn’t happen to us, but Luo Li’s guys have to fight in a bar and a parking garage before they leave the country. No one can offend the He family, but the brother of the guy that Luo Li killed disobeys his boss and goes off Poe Dameron style to attack the whole team. But it doesn’t go well for them.
I’m not sure where the aluminum bats come from. Maybe they come with the outfit.
In Cambodia they wear camouflaged uniforms, but the guerrillas wear olive green with red headbands, so there’s still a visual distinction, which is good because there will be alot of battling. Most of it is centered around this guerrilla base where people keep jumping out of the third story window, landing on their feet and shooting. This is a movie where people get shot and go flying over ledges. there is motorcycle jousting, cars flipping and jumping off docks, people’s heads breaking the ceiling, bodies sliding down bars clearing off drinkware, fighting on escalators and in elevators and leaping down to lower levels of a mall, planning an attack using a miniature model, slamming people in car doors, a truck smashing people on a wall and splattering DAWN-OF-THE-DEAD-esque blood onto the windshield, a shot from inside a truck backing up picking up the mercenaries and driving off as a crowd fires at them, jumping and rolling over a moving car, many many many grenades, a bazooka, an ending freeze frame on our hero holding a dead child (SPOILER)… It’s just some very dynamic violence.
Perhaps the movie can best be described with a combination of cool camera angle and bad pun:
MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG is a blast!
NOTE: As of this writing you need to be able to be able to play region 3 dvds to watch this
thanks to Kevin C. and Matt L. for recommending this one
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.