“Man in other country, it’s a long story” —translation of lyric from beach montage song
THE MASTER – not the Philip Seymour Hoffman one, the original – is a Tsui Hark movie made in 1989. Its claim to fame is that it was released in 1992 after ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA made Jet Li a superstar, but what makes it interesting is that it’s an ‘80s Hong Kong movie filmed in L.A. It has a theme of Chinese immigration, the idea that the people of China travel all over the world and bring their culture with them.
The primary practicioner of that philosophy, Uncle Tak (Yuen Wah, FIST OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON, CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD, GAME OF DEATH, HEROES SHED NO TEARS, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, DRAGON FROM RUSSIA, THE BODYGUARD, MASTER Z, action director of EASTERN motherfuckin CONDORS), is one of three masters the title could be referring to. He owns an herb shop in L.A. within view of the Library Tower (and next to a video store, but we never see inside it). He’s a very good healer and does bone settings for pro-wrestler-looking-dudes who come in after getting injured in fights.
But then one night he’s leaving the shop after a long day of work and Johnny (introducing Jerry Trimble, TERMINATOR WOMAN, HEAT), a local asshole with a mullet who teaches “American style” martial arts and therefore is a longshot contender for the titular master, confronts him on the street to demand a duel. (Debate me!) Uncle Tak refuses until Johnny throws something through the window, DO THE RIGHT THING style, jumps in and starts smashing everything.
Meanwhile there’s this young woman Anna (Anne Rickets, LETHAL GAMES starring Frank Stallone, one episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.) who just got kicked off of a gymnastics team for beating the shit out of a mean girl who purposely tripped her. I guess her introduction is cut out of the Miramax version, but I watched an import. When she sees Johnny’s thugs stomping on the old man she drives up on her motorcycle and rescues him.
Soon Jet arrives in town, playing more of a naive bumpkin than usual, and often wearing a baseball cap and backpack. I didn’t notice them ever saying his name until late in the movie when Uncle Tak’s letter refers to him as “my student, Jet.” He was supposed to follow his master to the States but never showed up when expected. He doesn’t speak English and the moment he gets off the airport shuttle three Latin-American gangster stereotypes in a graffiti-covered convertible swipe his bag, leading to a fun foot vs. car chase with lots of hurdle-jumping of barriers and one of those cool sliding-down-a-large-banner stunts.
We know these guys are interested in martial arts because the guy riding shotgun is reading about, from the looks of it, Chuck Norris in a Fist of Fury Magazine with Jonny on the cover. I was convinced this was just a real martial arts magazine that had a cover story on Trimble from his full-contact kickboxing days, because his nickname “Golden Boy” is visible and there’s a legit looking Converse ad on the back. But I couldn’t find such a magazine on Google and Jet wears white Chuck Taylors for the whole movie, so good job with the verisimilitude there, art department. Anyway, when they see what Jet can do they declare him “baddest dude we’ve ever seen,” bow at his feet and call him master (making him the most likely suspect to be the master of the title).
This is a cool thing about these international productions – the cliches can get all mixed up. So these buffoons who would just get beat up and discarded in the American version become Jet’s loyal students. Their names are Cito (Rueben Gonzales, who IMDb claims was in both EL TOPO and IT’S PAT, but I’m skeptical about the first one), Ruben (Guy Fadollone) and Mouse (Derek Anunciation, also in a Doogie episode). The movie tries to make them sympathetic because they get refused for jobs by the Asian restaurants in the neighborhood, one of them needs a green card, and they get bullied and told to go back to Mexico by a mostly black, leather-jacket-wearing gang (possibly called the Hawks?) who carry nunchakas and whose leader sports long beaded braids like Rick James.
Also notable: Billy Blanks is in the gang, no dialogue or credit. Between filming and release he was in BLOODFIST, TANGO & CASH, CHINA O’BRIEN II, LIONHEART, KING OF THE KICKBOXERS, TIMEBOMB and THE LAST BOY SCOUT.
Jet comes looking for his master, not knowing he was injured in the fight and decided to abandon the store and live in Anna’s trailer. Jet gets in trouble for camping out at the store, but also meets bank loan officer May (Crystal Kwok, “Policewoman,” POLICE STORY 2), who he’s relieved can converse with him in Chinese. (There are a ton of annoying bits about people failing to communicate in different languages.)
I mentioned Johnny and his mullet. It’s important that I make it clear this is no ordinary mullet. If there is such a thing as a “glorious” or “majestic” mullet, this is it.
He wears it as proudly as a lion wears its mane or a cobra spreads its hood. He belongs in the hall of fame for caucasian villains, an irredeemable prick with no point of view except that he is the greatest and must prove his dominance over all others. He gets to be dubbed in Cantonese sometimes and has underlings who say self-evident stuff like “Boss, they got away.” One of them looks like a giant Martin Kove, and is dubbed with a Russian accent.
Jonny’s the type of guy who goes to start a fight wearing a tie, and accompanied by a documentary crew. In the finale he wears an honestly pretty cool looking white kung fu outfit that kinda makes him look like a rock star as he sits in a throne on the roof of a skyscraper commanding dozens of students as they fight first Uncle Tak and then Jet and friends. And in his one-on-one with Jet I swear he does some Michael Jackson moves.
During much of that scuffle poor Anna is hung over the side on a pulley – there are some startling rope and falling stunts that seem to have been done on a real building. There’s an astoundingly long fall (with visible cable, but still…) that’s beautifully matched with a dummy shot. You will love how the dummy spins when it hits.
There are many fights. A couple are on top of cars, both parked and moving. Lots of furniture gets smashed. Stunt coordinators are Yuen Chun Yeung (ARMOUR OF GOD) and Uncle Tak himself. Jet trains the boys to fight off attackers by giving them sticks and swinging dodgeballs on ropes at them. One of Johnny’s students intimidates them by pulling down his letterman’s jacket, bouncing his pecs up and down, then pulling the jacket back up. Li moves great. Possibly my favorite fight is on a moving bus where the gang leader reveals himself by pulling his hat off and unleashing the braids, then pulls out a shotgun that he uses to blow the driver’s head off! After lots of smashing windows and seats his comeuppance is from the gun getting kicked backwards before he’s slammed against the side in such a way that it racks and fires into his chest. Then he falls and smashes his head on the remaining shards of a broken window. I like when a movie is kind of silly and then gets needlessly hardcore like that. Why not?
There are occasional stylish touches. My favorite is the JAWS-style dolly zoom that glorifies Johnny and his top students (and reveals the track the camera is moving on).
I guess that just means the video transfer was improperly masked. Shortly after that there’s this stunt where they don’t seem to hide the safety mat:
Ignoring that, this still seems a little low rent for Tsui. Also, Jet comes off as dense and insensitive when it ends on a corny joke about him laughing off May’s obvious affection for him. No matter. THE MASTER has more than enough legit Hong Kong action and enjoyable silliness to hit the spot. And only five years later he took that combination into the stratosphere with DOUBLE TEAM. I can see why P.T. Anderson wanted to remake this.