"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Dragon From Russia

Researching my review for CRYING FREEMAN I found out there was this five-years-older adaptation of the same comic. This one’s actually a Hong Kong action movie for real, but it’s not the moody John Woo type that influenced the 1995 version. This is the frenetic wire-fu style that was also big at that time.

Like the Dacascos version it has a guy who gets brainwashed and turned into a super assassin called Freeman (Samuel Hui). He wears an expressionless mask similar to the one Dacascos wore, but he wears it more often. He has the exploding guns, he has the tattoo. The cult is called 800 Dragons instead of Sons of the Dragon, but it’s kinda the same. He does fall for a girl who he’s supposed to kill because she saw his face and painted a picture of him. In this one his partner shoots her in the back and then in the front, but she survives and they stay friends. In this business you gotta learn to forgive people, I think. Like in the later movie the painting gets burned, this time with a flame thrower.

But the tone and structure of this one and most of the details are entirely different. There’s a whole chunk of the movie where he’s just a dorky pre-Freeman orphan living in Russia. He’s in love with fellow orphan (adopted sister?) May (Maggie Cheung). But their father figure (Dean Shek, also producer) knows too much about the 800 Dragons, and they come for him and for his boy.

The middle section turns into an old school kung fu movie. He’s shackled by a long chain to his master, a crazy old guy with a deformed face from magically disguising himself too much and getting stuck. There’s a girl named Pearl (Loletta Lee) who’s a captive there too and she’s obsessed with a bird she called Birdie who she sees as a pet and a metaphor for her potential freedom. But the poor bastard gets fried on the electrical fence. So things aren’t lookin up for Pearl.

There’s a badass training montage where, between sparring and Van Damme style rope-splits, he keeps dipping his fists into a huge pan full of roasting walnuts. At the end of the scene he lifts the entire hot pan by wrapping his arms around it. He puts it down and after a beat his Jackie Chan style mugging shows that it hurt like hell. But then he looks happy again and says, “The pain means I’m still human!” Always looking on the bright side.

When Freeman finally goes out into the world as a killer he runs into Maggie Cheung again (maybe during one of her breakups from Jackie in the POLICE STORY movies). He doesn’t remember her, but starts to fall for her again. It seems like she has to convince herself she’s not crazy, that this really is the same guy she used to live with, as if they haven’t seen each other since they were kids or something. But of course the actors are much too old for that to make sense.

The story and atmosphere are not as strong as the Dacascos version, and much more confusing. (Admittedly the poorly translated subtitles on the disc I rented didn’t help.) But the good news is there’s about 15 times as much action. There’s gun fights. There’s nunchakas. Freeman leapfrogs from a two-story bus to a car to another car and then to the back of his partner’s motorycle. There’s a fight on a subway, one on a train, there’s motorcycle drive-by uzi-ing, car jumps, exploding trucks. There’s a row boat in the movie but they don’t fight on it, I thought that was kinda disappointing. No airplanes either. But they got most of the land vehicles covered.

There’s a fight at a church during a funeral. A leap off the steeple, surrounded by doves. Hand-to-hand in front of a giant, ringing church bell. There’s a three-way martial arts, gun and knife fight inside a shower with a fourth non-combatant.

It’s the kind of movie where people throw knives at guns, wrap people in long swaths of cloth and then spin them like a yoyo, throw their jackets at each other in gun fights. There are many, many, many flips and high leaps and flying kicks and that classic wire work thing where they fly through the air running on somebody’s chest. A guy catches a knife in mid-air while doing a flip and throws it back at the original thrower, who catches it between his feet while he’s flipping and then kicks it back at the guy before landing, and that guy catches it in his mouth and throws it into his braid and tosses it back to the other guy, who catches it between his toes… Freeman’s controller (Nina Li) shoots at people while disguised as a geisha, a nun or an aviatrix. At the climax, there’s alot of this:

I gotta say, the movie is at it’s best when there are people jumping motorcycles in front of giant fucking explosions. But it’s at its second best when it leaves logic behind for long, crazy fight sequences with unexpected twists. In one scene a guy disguised as a hotel employee (Tak Yuen) tries to breathe fire onto Freeman. Next thing you know our guy’s knife fighting with a blade between his toes, then they jump through the window and fight on the roof of a pedestrian bridge, before having a foot chase into a building (while he’s still barefoot). Finally the fake room service guy leaps sideways through the glass door of a vacant office space… which turns out to be the secret headquarters of his controller lady. This was a test, and the attacker was his new assistant Teddy Wong. (I feel like he should be docked pay for breaking the glass. That was totally unnecessary.)

The action is energetic and imaginative, but filmatistically sloppy at times. I like a good slo-mo shot but in this there’s alot of the crude, low frame rate slo-mo where it just looks like that was the best they could do for showing the move clearly on screen. More like video evidence in a trial than an intentional cinematographic technique. Also there’s a bunch of obvious cuts that are supposed to make two moves look continuous, and even a few cases of obnoxiously re-playing an action beat over and over and over again like in Seagal’s notorious KILL SWITCH. I love seeing him jump onto the front of a car and kick through the windshield into the driver’s face, but the fifth or so time you show it I start re-thinking my stance.

Like in the other one a gang boss’s wife seduces a cop as part of her scheme to take over the gang, but in this one it’s at the husband’s funeral, right in front of his coffin. It’s okay, though. She says she’s doing it to stop the guy from searching the coffin. She didn’t get along with her husband, but feels loyal enough to defend his body from desecration. I like these weird character moments, but to be honest by this point I had given up on following who the different characters were and what exactly was going on.  At least I knew who the main guy was and he had a badass girl on a motorcycle (with sidecar!) helping him take on the army. And then the inevitable one-on-one with the main bad guy.

As a story this one didn’t work too well for me, but at least I got my money’s worth in crazy action. Not one of my favorites, but definitely enjoyable. The director, Clarence Fok, also did NAKED KILLER. I haven’t seen that one, but I think I might know sort of what it’s about. It could be good.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012 at 1:40 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Dragon From Russia”

  1. I think you have a copy paste error Vern

  2. So good, Vern reviewed it twice!

  3. What – too experimental for you guys?

  4. Three live action versions of the same comic ! Like the Punisher ! Now I’ve got to find this one too , and if the manga inspired all these guys , maybe it’s a good idea to also read it. Anybody knows if he wears the mask in the comics ? I like that little “touch of Jason Vorhees”.

  5. The trope of brainwashed killer or killer without memories is really common in HK cinema so much so I feel I must have watched more than a few movies with that as a concept. There’s always a sense of deja vu while watching them. Kind of like the feeling I felt reading that review…

    Ah, Sam Hui… I recall the gimmicky Aces go Places series with fondness.

    Any chance of reviewing Swordsman 1 (with Sam Hui), 2 (with Jet Li) and 3 (which totally shifted focus to the villain of 2)?

  6. Vern, the next logic step would of course be review the even older version of CRYING FREEMAN, KILLER’S ROMANCE, but this one’s better so I guess you don’t have to.

    You might think you know what NAKED KILLER is like, Vern, but I don’t think you do…

  7. pegsman – let´s hope Vern review NAKED KILLER.

  8. pegsman, that’s omnious!

    I like to see different movies based on the same original material, just for the curiosity factor of seeing how different filmmakers approach the same subject and the different ways they do it. I think it’s cool. This was also why once i didn’t used to have a negative opinion of remakes.

  9. Isn’t Samuel Hui the guy from those MAD MISSION movies? I loved them as a kid, but I haven’t seen them since then.

  10. Asimov, I didn’t mean it like that. I just think that it would be a shame if Vern used a lot of time and money to track down a movie that’s not that good.

    Shoot, I would like that.

    CJ, I re-watched all of the ACES GO PLACES movies (as they’re called in HK) recently and they hold up (if you like their goofyness).

  11. You know how we always tell Vern he has to review a movie? I think he should review all movies.

  12. Never saw this but the setpieces sound freaking glorious at points (I’m a sucker for knife fights with feet word to DOUBLE TEAM). I liked that in the early 90’s this one kept getting re-adapted left and right like a work of Shakespeare. I think it’s time for someone to revisit this in live action yet again soon because it’s been long overdue.

  13. Damn, that sounds like some good shit. I’ve been on a vintage HK binge lately, ripping through MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG, ABOVE THE LAW, IN THE LINE OF DUTY 5: FORBIDDEN ARSENAL, THE LAST BLOOD, and MADAM CITY HUNTER in quick succession. I must have passed this one over in the kung fu section of Ye Olde Porne Shoppe a dozen times, always tempted by the “from the director of NAKED KILLER” on the cover but never pulling the trigger. Just goes to show that I never regret any of the useless crap I spend money on, just the useless crap I don’t.

  14. The only version of DRAGON FROM RUSSIA with decent subtitles is the Hong Kong Legends edition, which you can get from Amazon.co.uk:


    Or in a 3 film set with the equally awesome STORY OF RICKY and Jackie’s CITY HUNTER:


    I’ve always really liked DfR and I remember it’s director Clarence Fok being heralded as the next big thing to come out of HK in the early 90s. But after NAKED KILLER his other films just didn’t seem to cut it and his star seemed to descend pretty quickly. A shame.

  15. I can highly recommend Killer’s Romance – it’s set in London and stars a young Simon Yam. It borrows a few elements of Crying Freeman but is mostly it’s own thing. Admittedly, its low budget and it’s a bit slow paced for the most part, but once you get to the final 30 minutes, it is just wall to wall bloody action.

    Also Naked Killer – just…watch it…

  16. Jareth Cutestory

    August 29th, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Ah, MADAM CITY HUNTER a/k/a The Sheila Chan Endurance Test.

  17. I swear MADAM CITY HUNTER must have been made by vomit fetishists. I’ve never seen so much gratuitous puking in a non-splatter movie before.

  18. It would be awesome if Vern reviewed NAKED KILLER. However, fair warning the title is a little deceptive. The film is not really about a naked killer. It is about an impotent cop Tinam (Simon Yam) that can’t draw his gun without throwing up, who falls for Kitty (Carrie Ng) an assassin in training that is also a suspect in an ongoing murder investigation. Soon Kitty, her master, and Tinam are all the targets of a rival lesbian assassin that wants Kitty for herself. The film is unabashedly violent, trashy (SPOILERS: a guy accidently eats a severed penis), and a times just plain bat shit crazy (SPOILERS: Tinam & Kitty have a ridiculous sex scene on a car that is shot like a 90’s R&B video). In some ways It feels like a crazy HK version of BASIC INSTINCT, but both films were released in 92 so I am not sure it was influenced by BI. It is also worth noting that NK is written and produced by legendary/notorious HK exploitation film maker Wong Jing.


  19. Sorry I guys. I meant to say Chingmy Yau plays Kitty. Carrie Ng plays Princess, Kitty’s mentor and trainer in NAKED KILLER. My bad.

    Also, Vern if you do decide to check NK out be careful because there is not a good DVD release of the film out there. A number of them have around 10 minutes of footage cut from the film or the transfer, subtitles, and/or audio is awful. The disc I have in uncut but the picture quality is pretty poor and it has lousy English subs you can’t remove even if you watch the film dubbed into English.

  20. The region 2 version of NAKED KILLER that Hong Kong Legends put out a few years ago is pretty good, plus it contains lots of extra features. I recommend that one if its still available to buy.

  21. Thanks Shoot, I will check it out. I want a better DVD of the film than the one I have now. Considering the amount of foreign films I watch I think one of these days I am going to have to breakdown and buy a region free Blu-ray player.

  22. I´m pretty sure that gag in NAKED KILLER involving hotdogs and severed penises was Wong Jings idea.

  23. You bet it was. And that’s the amazing thing about this guy, he can swing from sensitive drama to crazy action and still make money. I remember when he got yun-fat Chow to come back to the GOD OF GAMBLERS franchise after a few Chow free sequels. I was worried that they would overplay the melodrama like they did in large parts of the first one, but instead we got an action filled but very silly parody of everything yun-fat had done for John Woo over the years. But with added fat jokes. No penis munching though.

  24. To be honest, I´ve only seen the first GOD OF GAMBLERS. It has one of the most kickass themes of all-time. I remember watching the trailer on one of the Made In Hong Kong VHS´s and I couldn´t get the tune out of my head.

  25. The guy accidently eating the severed penis and not noticing it is pure Wong Jing, just like the transsexual joke in MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG is pure WJ. Jing is an interesting figure in HK cinema. He has had a prolific career as a director, writer, and producer, and been responsible for some truly great films I love (including a good chunk of both Jet Li & Stephen Cho’s films in the 90’s), but he is also known for his often crass humor and sleazy exploitation type fare like the RAPED BY AN ANGEL series. He has also made a number of shameless cash grabs like FUTURE COPS ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106545/ ), a star studded affair that blatantly disregards copywriter laws and features characters from the Street Fighter video game series and the Dragon Ball cartoon series all in one film with a convoluted plot that is a mash up of TIME COP and BACK TO THE FUTURE. It is as crazy and absurd as it is shameless and exploitive.

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