Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Ninja Strikes Back (Bruce Le and Joseph Kong, 1982)

Bruce Lee vs. Oddjob!  Well, sort of...

Amidst the plethora of Bruce Lee clones and imitators to have emerged upon the Asian action scene in the wake of the Little Dragon's death - including Bruce Li (real name Ho Chung Tao), Bruce Lai (Chang Yi-Tao) and Dragon Lee (Moon Kyoung-seok) - perhaps the king of the Bruceploitation scene was the cheerfully indomitable Bruce Le (born Kin Lung Huang and unleashed upon an unsuspecting and ungrateful world on the 5th of June 1950).

Having previously denigrated paid homage to the memory of Bruce Lee in such z-grade cinematic disasterpieces as Bruce's Deadly Fingers (Joseph Kong, 1976), the amazingly-titled My Name Called Bruce (Kong again, 1978) and Bruce's Fists of Vengeance (Bill James, 1980), Le comprehensively staked out his manifesto for idol desecration firmly with this artifact in 1982, with a script (a script?!?) credited to the hard-to-credit 'Bruce Le Writer's Group' which must have been an infinite monkey cage periodically hosed with psychoactive hallucinogenics.

Bruce here essays the challenging role of a martial arts expert called Bruce - in what can be left to the individual viewer to decide to be either a brilliantly meta fourth-wall breaking piece of self-referencing, the usual bandwagon-jumping hanging on to the coattails of the late departed Lee, a stunning lack of imagination or all of the above.  Bruce is partners with Ron (played by the superlative Tae Kwon Do expert Hwang Jang Lee, whose high-kicking skills and flying feet of fury have graced films as diverse as Jackie Chan's breakout duology of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and The Drunken Master [both helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping, 1978], probably the best and most competent of the Bruceploitation movies Game of Death II aka Tower of Death [Ng See-Yuen, 1981], and Godfrey Ho's 1985 cut 'n' splice chopsocky collage Ninja Terminator) in the employ of Al, a shady low-rent Caucasian Bond villain whose lair comprising of a menagerie of wild animals such as tigers and swimming pool bedecked with topless girls while martial artists practice on his lawn are a testament to his Flemingian ambitions that belie his grotty drug dealing setup.

The title sequence of the movie plays fast and loose with international copyright as per usual in the grey area of Asian cinema of the period (my own personal favourite is still the simultaneously totally inapposite and yet bizarrely right usage of Pink Floyd's "Time" in Bruce Lee's debut feature The Big Boss [Lo Wei, 1971]), as a photo montage of Le high-kicking against a cardboard Colosseum  backdrop plays out to seemingly random samplings of Lalo Schifrin's main theme from Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973).  During this sensory assault we are not only informed that Bruce Le was the action director on the film (and therefore we know exactly to whom we can apportion blame for that) but also that the co-producer credit is shared by the legendary / shady (delete as applicable) Dick Randall, the man behind such psychotronic exploitation fare as Around the World with Nothing On (Arthur Knight, 1963), The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt and Arthur Knight, 1968), The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Ken Dixon, 1975) and Eighties splatter classics Pieces (Juan Piquer Simon, 1982) and Slaughter High (George Dugdale, Peter Litten and Mark Ezra, 1986).  The credits also assail our eyes with the acting credit of 'Chick Norris' (in fact the producer's wife, Corliss Randall) - no doubt the perfect partner to Bruce Le(e).

The plot, such as it is, unfolds as the ambassador to Italy (a cameo from Randall himself) from an unknown country - presumably the USA and yet its so difficult to tell as it's probably not Dick's voice on the dubbed Anglophone soundtrack, and the voice tracks and sound effects are unanimously out of sync anyway - breaks off his dodgy business dealings with Al, which prompts the easy-going Honest Businessman to order the distressed dignitary's pretty young daughter kidnapped as leverage ('Mister Ambassador, with this nubile girl you are spoiling us!', said no Ferrero Rocher advert ever.  Incidentally, the kidnapper is a burly bearded man in drag for maximum devastating WTF?!? effect).  Bruce decides that a line had been crossed at this point and informs Al that he's quitting the organisation, prompting his erstwhile partner Ron Wong to Go Wrong and turn on him, in a harrowing sequence that doubtlessly influenced George Lucas to write the scenario of Captain Cody turning heel on Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Just kidding: this is much better than that.

As Bruce recovers in a Rome hospital from his attempted assassination by Ron to the strains of a cover version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', aided no doubt by the ministrations of his pretty but dim girlfriend Laura (or Lara?  The sound sync is so bad who knows?), he's visited by a pair of C.I.A. agents (or Interpol, or someone, i dunno) who ask for his aid in tracking down Ron Wong Gone Wrong, and the damsel in distress / dignitary's daughter Sophie (Sophia?  Shrug).  Acquiescing eventually, Bruce goes with Agent C.I.A. to Paris on the trail of the villains, treating us to long tracking shots of the Champs Elysses and Eiffel Tower to compliment the 'let's get as much of our money's worth in the can as possible' holiday footage of Roman locales such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps from earlier in the movie, wherein our dynamic duo raid first a French discotheque and then the film set of a girl-on-girl porn movie in their dogged pursuit of their quarry.

Bruce, discovering that Sophie / Sophia has been "shipped out to Macau" jets off to his homeland to rescue her from a cruel fate at the hands of villainous Japanese ninja Sakata (played in yet another genius slice of fried-gold character naming by Harold Sakata of Goldfinger [Guy Hamilton, 1964] fame).  Sakata is indeed a worthy adversary and one of the greatest villains in screen history, wearing his signature bowler hat with his traditional kimono in a fearlessly mismatched costume and having snatches of Monty Norman's James Bond theme played whenever he walks into shot.  As well as his trusty lethal steel-rimmed throwing headgear, Oddjob Sakata also has a golden hand (a Midas touch?) replete with metallic talons like a Bond version of Shih Kien's Han from Enter the Dragon (he also has all of his female kidnap victims addicted to drugs and corralled into an enforced harem, just like the aforesaid Bruce Lee foe).  Sakata's deadly hulking henchman is portrayed by kung fu flick mainstay Bolo Yeung (born Yang Tse, and henchman and villain in numerous action flicks from the aforementioned Enter the Dragon and Drunken Master to Bruce Le's Enter the Game of Death and facing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Newt Arnold's 1988 opus Bloodsport), the 'Chinese Hercules' who provides his usual threatening physical presence.

After dispatching these nefarious Nipponese nemeses, Bruce rescues What's Her Face with a cursory "Your father hired me to rescue you.  Ready to go back?", before we're back in Rome travelling First Class via airplane stock footage.  It is here, back at the place of the beginning, that Bruce must face the man who was once his best friend and is now his best fiend.  This epic confrontation with Ron takes place in the Colosseum, as the film decides to flip its prime source of shamefaced thievery cinematic homage from Enter the Dragon to Lee's 1972 The Way of the Dragon and ape the Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris battle pretty much shot for shot in the build up to the fight.  At last, our infinitely tested patience is rewarded with a competently choreographed acion sequence as Bruce battles against the lethal spinning kicks of Hwang Jang Lee's Ron, with a final 'nicked from a better movie' touch as the x-ray inserts of broken bones that added impact to the visceral violence of Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter (Shigehiro Ozawa, 1974) are replicated with animated (hand-drawn) shots of Ron's leg being shattered and his poor cartoon heart stopping as he falls at the feet of Bruce.

Quite how the makers of this spectacle managed to take an obviously decent sized production budget, varied and exotic Rome, Paris, Hong Kong and Macau locations, and a cast including very competent martial artists and yet still manage to make a film almost unwatchable in its ineptitude is truly a feat of wonder that should ensure this piece of celluloid mastery a pride of place in the canon of any true lover of hilariously 'so bad it's great' movies.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Invasion (1966, Alan Bridges)

Emerging from Britain's Merton Park Studios towards the end of their hallowed halls' tenure (after being in use from 1930 and producing a string of B-pictures - including the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series - and government-backed information films, Merton Park would produce it's last film a mere two years later in 1967), Invasion is an interesting little curio that long occupied a part of the back of my mind - having caught around half an hour of it many years ago caught by accident at the end of a videotape when recording whatever-film-it-was that had preceded it on broadcast back in the 1990s - and it was strangely satisfying to finally see the complete movie a mere two decades (give or take) later.

Directed by Alan Bridges (who had previously helmed some television policier series such as Z Cars and Maigret and an Edgar Wallace thriller [1964's Act of Murder], and would go on to direct the 1985 film The Shooting Party and the original 1987 Nicol Williamson-starring adaptation of Stephen King's Apt Pupil) from a screenplay by Roger Marshall (who had a huge background of writing credits, including six Edgar Wallaces, fifteen credits on The Avengers [a number of which are up there on my favourite episodes list for that series, being the slight pro-early years anti-Peel hipster that I am], nerve-jangling 1968 Hayley Mills-starring thriller Twisted Nerve, and the 1973 adaptation of David Case's "Fengriffen" And Now the Screaming Starts), based upon an original story by Robert Holmes (whose famed TV SF scribing career was soon to launch itself into the writing of the earliest of what would become an unprecedented seventy-three episodes of Doctor Who, and that's without mentioning his contributions to such small-screen sci-fi / fantasy classics as Doomwatch [1971], Blake's 7 [four episodes between 1979 and 1981], Douglas Camfield-directed SF horror The Nightmare Man [1981] and Into the Labyrinth [1981 and 1982]) the film certainly has a fine and intriguing pedigree.

The film's opening shots of a clouded sky followed by a crashing 'space rocket' are very redolent of Hammer Films / Exclusive Releasing's 1955 cinematic adaptation of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment, a parallel that continues with the domestic 'soap opera' sequences of an older middle-aged couple engaged in an extra-marital affair - the 1950s / '60s social realism aesthetic permeating into the genre: "You're the one who would always get scared that your wife would find out!" - who hit the alien being (played by Ric [nee Eric] Young: The Face of Fu Manchu Don Sharp, 1965], Lord Jim [Richard Brooks, 1965], Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [Steven Spielberg, 1984]) with their car, leading to the stranger being taken to the nearest hospital.

We have the true-to-the-period requisite Cold War paranoia among the locally-stationed soldiers, with dialogue such as "If the Russians decide to invade, you'll be sitting on this radar telling me it's a car ferry!" and "The Russians haven't sent anything up, have they?" as the autonomic responses to the evidence of a crashed spacecraft.  The shots of the military radar scanner are reminiscent of both the opening shots of the BBC's Quatermass II serial (Rudolph Cartier, 1955) and screenwriter Robert Holmes' later Doctor Who offering 'Spearhead From Space' (Derek Martinus, 1970), and the character of Major Muncaster is portrayed by actor Barrie Ingham (Alydon the Thal in the Amicus / Aaru Dr Who and the Daleks [Gordon Flemyng, 1965] and the eponymous hero in Hammer's A Challenge for Robin Hood [C. M. Pennington-Richards, 1967).  This recycling of imagery and ideas brings to mind the famed Robert Holmes quotation "All you need is a strong, original idea.  It doesn't have to be your own strong, original idea".

The film stars Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire [Val Guest, 1961], First Men in the Moon [Nathan Juran, 1964], Island of Terror [Terence Fisher, 1966]) as Dr Mike Vernon, Valerie Gearon (Nine Hours to Rama [Mark Robson, 1963], Anne of the Thousand Days [Charles Jarrott, 1969]) as Dr Claire Harland, Tsai Chin (lately of such things's as television's Marvel-ous Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2014] and big screen Bond bonanza Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006], but known to most genre aficionado's as the calculating Lin Tang, daughter of Fu Manchu, in five fiendish flicks between 1965 and 1969) as Nurse Lim, and - as credited on the DVD box and presumably the contemporary publicity, explaining the slightly problematic nature of the phraseology - 'Oriental beauty Yoko Tani' as the Lystrian leader.

Our crashed spaceman arrives at the local hospital (the building and surrounding environs familiar from sundry Merton park productions, from installments of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries to such features as Sidney J. Furie's 1964 The Leather Boys and the 1966 Ian Curteis / John Croydon monstrosity The Projected Man), and Dr Harland (the enchanting Valerie Gearon) finds herself in the same quandary that the irate Dr Lomax was to find himself in a few years later in 'Spearhead from Space' - cross matching a blood sample from the unearthly patient and not recognising it as human with a frustrated "Is this your idea of a joke?".  There are alien signifiers in the X-rays, too, not a binary cardiovascular system but an opaque disc inside the speech centre of the brain which turns out to be a Universal Translator as the visitor finds himself able to speak and understand human language (English of course - this is the 1960s after all!) after touching a nurse (not like that, this isn't a Carry On) - "a direct electronic pathway" having been established.

While the alien has his body temperature regulated and brought down with ice, the old eerie and mysterious standby of 'freak weather conditions' cause patches of localised fog to coalesce around the area as the hospital is isolated from the outside by sinister forces and communication is severed ("All outside lines are out of order!") and the temperature, both dramatic and thermal, begins to rise.  Officious hospital official Carter (Lyndon Brook) tries to barter with the alien visitor to set up an exclusive exchange of information, prompting Dr Vernon's boiling frustration to overspill with a cri de coeur of "Three hundred patients' lives are more important than any glory!", before the departing Carter crashes his car at full speed into the invisible force barrier placed around the hospital by the alien's pursuers and ends his days dashed upon the dashboard.  The army troops guarding / investigating the space vehicle's crash site are tres Quatermass and the Pit , and tension builds as Geiger counter readings detect large amounts of radioactivity around the site.  "We think it crashed here... Atomic powered"; there are definite undertones of atomic age nuclear paranoia - a fear that runs like a transuranic seam through many 1950s and '60s SF and horror movies.

The leader of the pursuit squadron from the planet Lystria (Tani) infiltrates the hospital by changing places with Chin's Nurse Lim, a substitution that seemingly goes unnoticed by the nurse's co-workers including the ward sister as the imposter homes in on her bed-ridden target, evoking the awful and parochial Western attitude that people of East Asian appearance "all look the same".  We learn that Young's character is the prisoner of the female Lystrians who was en route to a prison planet when an accident caused the crash landing, and the Lystrian socity is broadly painted as the old pulp SF cliche of the 'inverted' society of a 'planet ruled by women', a hoary trope that was still being trotted out contemporaneously on BBC television with Doctor Who: 'Galaxy 4' and its belligerent Drahvins - and in a serendipitous co-incidence of casting Stephanie Bidmead who played the Drahvin's ruthless leader-queen Maaga is featured here as the character of Elaine.

"Our justice is a poor thing - often conducted by women" say the gals from the gynocentric globe, playing a poor-me ploy and painting a picture of a female-led society as weaker, perhaps illogical and ruled by instinct - a curiously anti feminist message that clashes with the strong and capable portrayal of Dr Harland who responds to Judd's wavering ("Maybe we can reason with them - maybe they're not as savage as he says") with moral certainty ("They still have prisoners").  The uncertainty as to which Lystrian is telling the truth - is Young's character a dangerous criminal or a victim? - ceases to waver when the patient takes Dr Harland hostage in a bid to get through the force barrier and stabs Major Muncaster, and the old tableau of the strange, strange creature carrying off the beautiful woman (as seen in movies such as  Universal's The Creature from the Black Lagoon [Jack Arnold, 1954] and Hammer's The Mummy [Terence Fisher, 1959]) is played out once again.  Our sympathy for the visitor, which has grown over the course of the film, begins to waver and the cold and remote Lystrians become more plausible in their tale - his story "the product of an immature mind", as Tani's lead Lystrian says.  As the patient / prisoner gets to the ship and takes off, only to be shot down by the Lystrian pursuit ship, we are left with the contemplation of "I think i preferred the idea of space peopled by three-eyed monsters... Now we've got them killing each other just like us."

Invasion is a well-crafted little slice of Cold War era science fiction, which uses the 'Reds Under the Bed' metaphor employed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer in such films as William Cameron Menzies' 1953 Invaders from Mars in a more nuanced fashion and transcends its limited budget with an intelligent script, well-performed characters and a pervasively claustrophobic atmosphere that takes full advantage of the restricted locations.  I would certainly recommend any fans of genre movies to check it out, as well as anyone interested in the capabilities of the smaller studios in 1960s UK filmmaking.

B-movies could really be movies.