November 11th, 2013

IT CAME FROM THE THRIFT STORE: TO LIVE AND DIE IN HONG KONG (1988) **

Well, I told you all that I would be reviewing Bloodsport 4: The Dark Kumite this week; and I would’ve too. Only that when I opened up the DVD box… lo and behold there was no DVD in there! When I buy these things at the thrift store, I don’t always check to see if the movie is in there or not, and sadly, this was one of those times. Such is life.

So instead, this week’s flick is called To Live and Die in Hong Kong and it’s about two sailors in Hong Kong. One is out to bang hookers and the other one thinks he’s a big shot and hangs around with smugglers and criminals and the like. Of course, he gets kidnapped by the bad guys and the other guy has to stop banging hookers long enough to hire a private detective named Horatio Lim to find his lost buddy.

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Oh, and in case you’re wondering, none of those guys on the video box appear in the actual movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure the guys on the bottom are members of Tavares with red headbands drawn on their foreheads. I could be wrong though.

To Live and Die in Hong Kong is one of those movies where there is a ton of stuff going on, but nothing ever HAPPENS. There is a subplot involving an Udo Kier wannabe cheating on his wife with his secretary. The secretary is also seeing Horatio Lim, so there’s some business going on with that. Then there’s the long-winded machinations of the bad guy’s plot that goes nowhere. None of this is particularly involving.

We do get some OK Kung Fu action though. Most of it is the usual chopsocky stuff, but every so often there is a nutty scene that makes you chuckle. There’s a part where some gang members in masks snap their fingers in time. One character says, “It’s like West Side Story!” and his friend retorts, “But this is the east side!” We also get a guy with metal teeth who goes around biting people as well as a WTF scene where a scuba diver randomly tosses a hatchet into some guy’s throat. That’s not enough to make the movie, but it does break up the monotony a bit.

AKA: Heroes Three. AKA: Three Warriors. AKA: Hong Kong Caliente. AKA: Backfighter 3. AKA: Hunted in Hong Kong.

Next week’s It Came from the Thrift Store flick: Ninja Phantom Heroes USA!

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: JOHN WAYNE

John Wayne has always been my favorite cowboy star. But as good as the movies he made during the height of his stardom were, I always find myself returning to the low budget films he made during the early part of his career. And it’s these films that we’ll be focusing on today.

First up is…

THE DAWN RIDER (1935) ** ½

John Wayne rides into town to see his father. While he’s out horsing around and drinking in a saloon, his father gets gunned down by a man in a polka dot scarf. The Duke gets shot while chasing down the villain’s gang and he gets nursed back to health by a purdy young lady. Once he gets back on his feet, Wayne goes out to bring the bad guy down.

The Dawn Rider is a watchable, but interchangeable early era John Wayne western. It’s basically the same plot you’ve seen in countless other Wayne oaters from the time. (The plot point of Wayne looking for a killer in a polka dot scarf was blatantly stolen from Blue Steel, which came out just the year before.) Director R.N. Bradbury (a veteran of countless Wayne pictures) just seems to be going through the motions here, and because of the overall feeling of déjà vu, The Dawn Rider never really comes to life.

Despite the overreliance of clichés, The Dawn Rider remains a breezy watch. If you’re a fan of The Duke, you’ll probably find enough reasons to watch the flick. He gives a solid performance and gets into enough fights, horse chases, and other assorted action bits to keep you watching. It’s no great shakes, but there are way worse ways you could spend 55 minutes.

AKA: Cold Vengeance.

Our next feature is…

PARADISE CANYON (1935) ***

John Wayne stars as an undercover agent (named “John” of course) who is sent to infiltrate a traveling medicine show. Dr. Carter (Earl Hodgins) is the leader of the troupe and a suspected counterfeiter. It’s up to John to gain his trust and see if Carter is on the up and up. After a little digging, John learns that Carter’s former partner, Curly Joe (Yakima Canutt) is the real crook and he sets out to bring him to justice.

Paradise Canyon benefits greatly from a funny performance by Earl Hodgins. He gets some real laughs, especially while constantly taking nips from his secret “formula”. I guess this would’ve been the standard George “Gabby” Hayes role, but I’m glad they cast Hodgins instead. His performance definitely sets Paradise Canyon apart from several other Wayne westerns from the period. Hodgins has good chemistry with Wayne, who delivers yet another likeable and durable performance (he also gets to show off his trick shooting skills too).

The rest of the film is more or less standard issue. However, the medicine show caravan is an interesting plot angle and allows for a nice change of pace from the usual rodeos and one horse towns that normally populate the westerns Wayne made for Lone Star. (I could’ve done without the caravan musical numbers though.) And once again, Yakima Canutt’s stunts are top notch.

AKA: Guns Along the Trail.

Next we have The Duke in…

HELL TOWN (1937) ***

Cowpoke Dare (John Wayne) heads to Wyoming with his pal Dinky (Sid Saylor) to see his rich cousin Tom (Johnny Mack Brown). Dare butts heads with him right away, but Tom still offers him a job on his ranch. Dare declines but changes his tune when he falls in love with Tom’s girlfriend (Marsha Hunt). When Dare is entrusted with selling off the herd, he loses the profits in a poker game. Tom quickly realizes he’s been cheated and busts up the game and saves Dare’s bacon.

Directed by Charles T. Barton (who later went on to direct Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), Hell Town is a bit more mature than the usual cut-and-paste oaters John Wayne made for Lone Star. The production values are better and the flick benefits from Barton’s assured direction. (There’s a big stampede scene early on, something you’d never get from your typical John Wayne western from the era.) Hell Town was based on a novel by Zane Grey, so the script is a bit more complex than most of Wayne’s westerns of the day. For one, it’s nice seeing The Duke playing a more down and out kind of character than he normally plays.

All of these little differences don’t necessarily make Hell Town better than most of Wayne’s films from his early days. However, it does make for a good change of pace. And if anything, Hell Town is a nice stepping stone from his low budget westerns to the more iconic roles he’d soon be taking.

AKA: Born to the West.

And our final Wayne flick is…

DESERT COMMAND (1946) ** ½

Desert Command is a condensed serial from 1933 (from Mascot) that was re-released 13 years later to cash in on the success of its star, John Wayne. It was originally shown in 12 chapters and ran a whopping 3 ½ hours altogether. This version is only 71 minutes long, so it loses a bit of the serial feel, but it’s not bad.

Three Foreign Legion soldiers act as a modern day Three Musketeers. They fight gunrunners in the African desert with the help of their D’Artagnan, Col. Wayne (John Wayne), a hotshot pilot who machine guns bad guys from the air. The Arab gunrunners frame Wayne for murder and he gets the Musketeers to help him clear his name.

Wayne is quite good in this and seems to be having a lot of fun. The best part for me though was seeing a young Lon Chaney, Jr. (billed as “Creighton Chaney”) as Wayne’s friend, who is embroiled with the bad guys. He gives the best performance of the film as he is torn between helping his friend and serving the will of the evil Sheik.

Seeing The Duke and The Wolf Man on screen together is just about enough for me to recommend this to you. It’s just a shame that the flick gets so choppy in the second half. I know, it was bound to happen. What do you expect when you try to cram 210 minutes’ worth of serial into a 71 minute feature? But even so, things get awfully ADD by the end of the flick. And I wish that the Musketeers themselves were more than just comic relief. Other than that, it’s fairly decent.

AKA: The Three Musketeers.

Next week’s Legend: Orson Welles!

OF COOKS AND KUNG FU (1979) ***

The opening narration tells us that everyone knows about Shaolin and Wu Tang Kung Fu, but one of the great lost fighting styles is... Cooking Kung Fu! (“Chinese food is the best in the world, and so is their Kung Fu!”) Then this guy in a big ass hat goes around beating the crap out of cooks looking for the “King of Chefs”. The King of Chefs meanwhile is busy teaching his grandson (Jackie Chen) to be a good cook. When the killer finally finds the King of Chefs, it’s up to his grandson to use his Cooking Kung Fu to protect his grandfather.

The correlation between fighting and cooking is a funny enough hook for a silly Kung Fu flick. And it’s definitely funny whenever our hero shouts out stuff like “Bean curd!” and “Beef with Veggies” while (pardon the pun) dishing out his Kung Fu. The action comes fast and furious and while the fights aren't exactly great, there are certainly a lot of them, so that makes up for it.

Of Cooks and Kung Fu is yet another film in the “Crotchety Old Master” tradition. As is the case with most of these films, the old timer sits around, smokes a pipe, and kicks the shit out of his pupil whenever he tries to get out of doing his chores. And as far as these things go, Of Cooks and Kung Fu is pretty good. It’s relatively well made and the fight scenes are competent, although the people in charge of the dubbing really did a number on the flick. And because of that, the film is full of unintentional laughs. (More on that in a bit.)

The music department is also a source of hilarity. There’s this one scene where the Jaws theme plays during a fight for no real reason whatsoever. And in the end during the big showdown, music from Star Wars plays!

Body Count: 12

Bad Dubbing Meter: 100. One of the worst dub jobs on record. The dubbing is pretty bad for the bulk of the flick, but it goes through the stratosphere during the final two reels. It is here when, for some unknown reason, everyone stops speaking English and starts speaking German! It’s hilarious.

Notable Kung Fu Styles: Cooking Kung Fu, Flying Shark’s Fin Soup, “Backside Style”, Steamy Bread, Sweet and Sour Pork, Steaming Beef Balls, Beggar’s Chicken, Soft Spring Rolls, Flying Chopstick, and Drunken Chicken.

Quotable Dialogue: “If I hadn’t fled, he wouldn’t be dead!”

Final Thought: Of Cooks and Kung Fu should please fans of good (the fight scenes) and bad (the dubbing) Kung Fu flicks alike.

AKA: Duel of the Dragon.

The next Kung Fu-A-Palooza movie will be: Dragon’s Claws.