Some of the great western martial artists have a Hong Kong movie or two under their belts. Cynthia Rothrock did YES MADAM, ABOVE THE LAW, etc. For Brandon Lee it was LEGACY OF RAGE. Darren Shahlavi had TAI CHI II and IP MAN 2. Gary Daniels had CITY HUNTER. Scott Adkins was in that movie EXTREME CHALLENGE. Michael Jai White was in SILVERHAWK. And of course Paul Rudd stars in GEN-X COPS 2: METAL MAYHEM.
I’ve already noted the heavy Hong Kong cinema influence on Mark Dacascos movies including CRYING FREEMAN and DRIVE, but in this Hong Kong production filmed in Shanghai for the international market he actually got to be for-real directed and choreographed by the legendary Stanley Tong (SWORDSMAN 2, SUPERCOP, SUPERCOP 2, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, FIRST STRIKE).
It was filmed in both English and Cantonese, so most of the characters don’t seem dubbed. Dacascos plays the lead villain, Tony Lau, a young gangster who’s trying to get his mentor Uncle Ma (Lau Siu-Ming, ABOVE THE LAW, A BETTER TOMORROW II, POLICE STORY 2) to add drug imports to his criminal portfolio. Uncle Ma is dead set against it – he’s able to pay off the police partly because he stays away from drugs – but he agrees to meet with Tony’s American friend (Coolio, BATMAN & ROBIN, DAREDEVIL) about it out of politeness.
I knew going in that Coolio was in the movie, but I was surprised by the name of his character: Coolio. There are a couple other main characters who use their real first names in the movie, but it’s more noticeable when the first name is “Coolio.” As far as I’m aware the real Coolio is not an international drug kingpin, and if the fictional character Coolio is supposed to be a famous rapper it’s never mentioned. So I don’t know if Coolio is
a) playing himself
b) playing a person who’s not himself, but happens to have the name Coolio
c) playing an international drug kingpin who has been nicknamed Coolio because of his uncanny resemblance to the famous rapper Coolio
I hope it’s a, though, because that would put him with Redman (SEED OF CHUCKY) in an elite group of rappers who play themselves in movies where they die. I wonder if Redman and Coolio would be as revered as Tupac if they’d really been disemboweled by Chucky or fell off of a helicopter onto a large glass panel and had a fight but then got hit by a falling car and fell off and plummeted to the ground (SPOILER)?
Anyway, there are multiple songs on the soundtrack by Coolio (the famous rapper, not the fictional character, if there is one), but I don’t think they are his best work. “I Like Girls” is particularly ridiculous. I honestly thought at first it was a song made by Chinese studio musicians to mimic what they imagined popular American music was like. But I guess it works with the movie in its own silly way.
The actual heroes of the movie are two mainland cops, Darren Tong (Aaron Kwok, STORM RIDERS) and Alex Lee (Leehom Wang, LUST, CAUTION, BLACKHAT). They’re attending a fashion show put on by Alex’s girlfriend Ruby (Ruby Lin, DRAGONBLADE) when a guy gets assassinated. Alex connects the murder to Uncle Ma’s visiting Japanese friend Norika (Norika Fujiwara, GTO) because he sees her take something off the body, but he later finds out she’s undercover for Interpol. While she’s in custody, Darren is super hot for her and she’s either trying to seduce him or he’s having sexy daydreams about her trying to seduce him, or both. I’m kind of unclear on that.
I really thought at first that this might be a classic, because it’s top loaded with the type of knockout wire-enhanced martial arts and mind-blowing stunt sequences that had made Hong Kong cinema so intoxicating in the ’90s. It starts with what seems like an homage to the opening of THE MATRIX, with leather-dustered dudes coming out of the rain, invading a dark building, leaping and flipping through the hallways kicking ass. It turns out to be a police training exercise.
By far the best part of the movie is when Darren chases the fleeing fashion show assassin (Kim Won-Jun, stunt coordinator for the MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER trilogy). It’s a foot chase on a freeway dodging traffic, then they both catch up with and jump into a pickup truck, and jump from vehicle to vehicle like Frogger was a documentary.
Darren commandeers a motorcycle and just drives it up the back of a van, jumps from that onto the tour vehicle the guy is on top of, flies off and tackles him, they have a kung fu battle until he falls off and they’re pedestrians on the freeway again.
No big deal. Just regular cop stuff, you know.
Right after that Ruby also has an A+ stunt in a shopping mall where she grabs Alex’s tie and uses it to swing down to a lower level. It’s such cool, crazy move, and also kinda hilarious in how humiliating it is for Alex that she so brazenly uses him as an escape tool. I wonder if he’ll try to cite that incident as a reason to change the dress code.
Note in the middle screengrab here that they have extras on all the levels to show that it’s a regular shopping day.
(For some reason there’s a reoccurring thing about referencing Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
The other classic sequence is when Tony drives his white Lamborghini Countache with Darren on top and then after he falls off there happens to be a Formula-1 race car there for him to commandeer! And they not only drive ridiculously fast in regular traffic, but both use the low heights of their vehicles to drive under trucks.
I only wish the last hour – or especially the middle half hour – went as hard as that first 30 minutes. So much good shit concentrated in there. Then the plot and the romantic comedy really kicks in. Alex is planning to propose and what not. And they’re trying to solve a mystery and there’s a scene about Tony and Coolio in a hot tub making Norika prove that she’s not wearing a wire and Coolio has to hide his boner.
Fortunately in the last 20 minutes it livens up again with a stunt involving various players fighting on top of a car in a net hung from a helicopter. And then they fall onto the aforementioned plane of glass (hanging due to skyscraper construction) which they run back and forth on and try to balance like a see-saw. They keep hanging off the edge and the sound of hands squeaking across glass as they lose grip is very effective. Honestly the scene goes on a little longer than it needs to, but I like this mix of scarily death-defying stuntwork and outlandish insult to physics. Similarly, there’s a very Yuen Woo-Ping-esque move in the big fight where Alex is on his back and with his feet he flips Darren up in the air and then holds his feet up and Darren lands balanced on them and jumps off and flips and dropkicks Tony. You don’t see that every day. Once a week, at most.
Incidentally, in this scene Coolio (or his stunt double) also knows kung fu and does that move where you get knocked on your back and you roll back on your shoulders and pop up and land on your feet. Good for him.
Though Dacascos isn’t involved in the best action sequence (the freeway foot chase) he does get to use his fighting skills sparring (he kicks his friend out of the ring) and then in the climactic temple fight with both hero cops. Happily this is one of the Dacascos movies with fight scenes worthy of his talents.
And the fight moves onto the car hanging from the helicopter, so he’s got some thrilling stunt work there. But, uh… he leaves that sequence a little early. Fortunately it’s also a very credible and I’d even say layered villain performance in a movie where not all of the other characters are up to his level. Coolio is mostly comic relief riffing (saying that an ancient temple reminds him of The Golden Nugget in Vegas) and even the two hero cops have to do some pretty weak humor – there’s even a comical record scratch at one point. It’s supposed to be funny that Coolio keeps using ethnic slurs (and one homophobic one) and talking about Chinese food, and then that Tony says something about black people dancing and playing basketball so Coolio can make this face:
Alex is pretty much supposed to be a dumbass, and I did laugh at his line delivery in the part where his angry boss says “I don’t want you to discuss this with anyone. Not your family, not your girlfriend, not even your dog.”
But Dacascos plays his character like he’s the reasonable one, only trying to keep up with the times, to modernize and improve the family business for a changing world. He never revels in how evil he is, and tries to be calm and diplomatic when Uncle Ma rejects Coolio. He really sells it that from his point of view he’s right. Even though he kills his own uncle, and we saw him murder a baby in his first scene.
The idea of a new generation taking over the criminal empire and making it more savage is pretty common. See for example BLADE, or JOHN WICK in a way. I can relate to that idea that these young whippersnappers don’t know what’s important, but it never really occurred to me what a conservative idea it is. Yes, tradition and history are important, but progress still comes from the youth. These days you kind of gotta hope that the younger people are gonna have better ideas and less attachment to the worst bullshit of the past. I can see an interpretation of CHINA STRIKE FORCE as propaganda, telling us the youth are gonna fuck everything up by doing the thing that Uncle Ma was wise enough not to do. In this case it’s also an American, in fact African-American influence that sends them down a bad path. And they’re desecrating the great history of China by parking their Lamborghini in front of an ancient temple, laying out trays of cocaine inside, having a gunfight, Coolio kicking his Chucks up on the emperor’s throne.
If that’s the subtext, though, it’s still a Chinese movie in English and trying to take advantage of actors, pop stars and beauty queens from various countries in order to appeal to people of all different cultures. And Tong would soon go to Hollywood and make a damn MR. MAGOO movie with Leslie Nielsen. So I don’t think he’s against us.
The script is credited to Tong and Steven Whitney, at that time a writer for the BeastMaster TV series.
True to Tong’s stunt history, the end credits have some astounding failed stunt outtakes. They’re mostly the Lamborghini spinning out of control or failures to land the motorcycle on top of the car. And they’re a good reminder that whatever its many flaws it’s almost your duty to watch this out of respect for the people who do that shit.