Mercenaries From Hong Kong

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.

Editorial meeting

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:


NOTE: As of this writing you need to be able to be able to play region 3 dvds to watch this

2022 UPDATE: MERCENARIES FOR HONG KONG is included as a region A (maybe region free?) blu ray in Arrow’s Shawscope Volume Two box set!

thanks to Kevin C. and Matt L. for recommending this one

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 31st, 2018 at 9:44 am and is filed under Action, Monster, 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.

15 Responses to “Mercenaries From Hong Kong”

  1. I’m usually ahead of the game on these older HK titles but not this time. Needless to say that you sold me hard on this one.

  2. This movie is great for all the reasons Vern said. Just the perfect blend of colorful ridiculousness and badass action that will get you fully onboard within seconds.

    Last year I spent a few months digging deep into the Shaw Brothers library, and I discovered a weird thing: The type of movies people generally consider a “Shaw Brothers movie,” i.e. a period kung-fu epic, is far and away my least favorite type of movie they made. The period kung-fu stuff was what traveled, but the Shaws did EVERYTHING: contemporary action, true crime, horror, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, social dramas, women-in-prison, sex romps, period erotica, rape-revenge, biker movies, war movies, you name it. They were all infused with the same elbow grease that made their chopsocky flicks stand out from the pack. My favorites are the black magic movies like, um, BLACK MAGIC, HEX, SEEDING OF A GHOST, and THE BOXER’S OMEN (particularly that last one) but I found that just about any genre gets a little better when you throw in some kung-fu. Like, THE DRUG ADDICTS would just be a well-meaning but didactic anti-drug addiction parable if it didn’t have MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG’s own Ti Leung (my second favorite Shaw star after his frequent partner/dappy little asskicker David Chiang) kicking the habit AND the ass of every scumbag in sight. The Shaws’ off-brand genre movies are generally pretty goddamn hardcore compared to the often campy design and garish colors of the company’s period kung-fu movies, to the point where you get stuff like THE KILLER SNAKES and LOST SOULS that feel like Category III films from a decade or more later like THE UNTOLD STORY or DR. LAMB, minus the knowing wink. It’s a long, weird fall down the rabbithole once you start exploring the uncharted regions of the Shaw catalog, but I highly recommend it.

  3. I second Shaw’s horror movies. They are both very unique and very good. BOXER’S OMEN and the two BLACK MAGICs (though first one is quite a bit better) are stand-outs.

    Mr. M already mentioned genre fair (goes without saying I’m huge fan of their MIGHTY PEKING MAN and SUPER INFRA-MAN (really which they would have done more ‘special effects’ films), but they were a one-stop shop. I even picked up some random musicals, dramas, and comedies from them just out of interest and curiosity. Hell they even co-produced BLADE RUNNER. When they decided to go strictly TV in the early 80s the world lost a very unique studio that wasn’t afraid to release anything it seems.

  4. When I worked at a Martial Arts channel, we aired this one. It was one of my favorites, for the reasons Vern states, and especially because the visuals for the promos I got to make for it were just so awesome. So many badass stunts and crazy compositions. Some even made their way onto my reel!

  5. The Undefeated Gaul

    January 31st, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    I will likely never watch the film in question but man, this review was a joy to read.

  6. BOXER’S OMEN made me literally vomit, and I’m the kind of guy who will happily watch Lucio Fulci movies while eating dinner. Like John Waters, I consider that a standing ovation.

  7. Oooooo I have been sitting on Black Magic for two years. Should watch it.

  8. I used to be really into all kinds of HK movies back in the 90s. But as hobbies go it became too expensive to keep on importing every movie I liked the look of. Haven’t seen this one though.

  9. This review, made my day. I am glad Vern enjoyed it. I love this movie and have hoped Vern would eventually review it for years. I actually got to see this screened in a theater blind without knowing anything about it and it was love at first viewing. (They also screened SEED OF A GHOST that evening as well)

    I have already written about this film a bunch of times on this site (including the suggestions section and a forum post) trying to bring this film to more people’s attention. It is super fun. I don’t have anything to add I haven’t already said or Vern covered in his review, but I can’t stress enough how amazing the first 15 minutes or so of this movie is. The whole film is great but the first 15 minutes or so that includes Ti Lungs introduction and his spectacular assaination mission and daring/crazy escape might be the best 15 minute opening of any movie it is so awesomely badass.

    As follow ups to this film, (They are not shaw brothers films but) Vern should check out the Wong Jing produced NAKED KILLER and the insane Kung-fu/supernatural/action mash up THE SEVENTH CURSE.

    I wish there was a good blu Ray release of this film.

  10. I also agree with you guys about how enjoyable this era of Shaw Brothers films are. It was a crazy time where classic style Kung Fu films that the shaw brothers brand was known for had fallen out of fashion with audiences and they were desperately looking for a hit in genres they were not known for and made some cray stuff during that period.

    MIGHTY PEKING MAN is cray fun.

  11. Every time you post, Charles, and I see that picture of Yun-fat Chow with the rocket launcher, I start looking for my copy of THE SEVENTH CURSE.

  12. Pegsman, THE SEVENTH CURSE is based on an episode of a popular Chinese action adventure book series featuring the Wisely character (portrayed by Chow Yun-fat in T7C). I believe there are a number of other films made based on the series featuring Wisely, but T7C is the only one with Chow in the role. Have you or anyone else around these parts seen and could recommend any of the other Wisely films?

  13. Charles – For Wisely films I’ve only seen THE LEGEND OF WISELY and BURY ME HIGH with Sam Hui and Chin Ka-lok in the title role, respectively. I enjoyed both, with BURY being an okay film until the final third with an outstanding action finale involving Moon Lee, Yuen Wah as a Vietnamese dictator, and lots of fighting and ‘splosions. I also have WESLEY’S MYSTERIOUS FILE with Andy Lau but I haven’t watched it yet.

  14. Thanks Al.

  15. Suggestion: Vern and Mr. Majestyk should team up to write a book of reviews of the deep cuts from the Shaw Brothers catalog.

    Or how about a podcast? It could be like 80s ALL OVER but for Shaw Brothers films. I sincerely believe the world needs this. If we can make it happen, I will gladly pitch in to buy you guys matching jumpsuits.

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