Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Gweilo Dojo: GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974)

It's almost one of those crazy fanboy wet dreams that the studios love so much these days. Drooling fanboy's have long speculated "who would win in a fight? Jason or Freddy?" At the time Hollywood's creativity was at a point where they bravely stepped up to the plate and said "we'll make a whole movie about that!" Of course now, that would be too daring since it isn't actually a remake of a past film. Come to think of it, maybe they could do a remake of FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)! It's Anyway, one of my favorite underrated directors is Robert Clouse and one of my favorite actors is Joe Don Baker. What if they made a movie together? But wait, they did! My fanboy match-up come true.

During the Sung Dynasty a single gold statue was made for the emperor. A statue that holds acupuncture needles in the seven forbidden acupuncture points. When correctly used, the needles in the precise spots can rejuvenate the elderly and the infirm, and provide extraordinary sexual vigor (is there anything in Chinese medicine that isn’t supposed to give you a righteous hard-on?). If used incorrectly, however, the recipient will get nothing more than a painful death! Another reason it is important to get to know your doctor, I guess. This statue has been the Chinese Holy Grail of sorts, often stolen and briefly possessed by different people throughout history. And now it’s going to be stolen again.

So starts director Robert Clouse’s vastly entertaining east-meets-west action-thriller epic GOLDEN NEEDLES, starring the inimitable Joe Don Baker and a great Lalo Shifrin score. 

The movie kicks into gear straight out of the gate. An old man, unable to move because of the stiffness in his joints lies on a table in a Hong Kong acupuncturist’s room. The acupuncturist begins putting the legendary golden needles in the patient one by one… with each instertion the joints begin to move and finally the patient is able to get down off of the table and walk out as if he was a lad of only a mere 65 years of age! That’s when the flamethrowers come in. Yep, not content to simply beat up an old man and a couple of hot young girls and take the statue, or villain sends in two goons in flameproof suits and full-blown flamethrowers torching everything and everyone in their path (ummmm… the statue is gold, wouldn’t the flames melt it?) . Now that’s how you start a movie about an acupuncture statue!

The mastermind of the aforementioned theft is crime-boss Lin Toa (Roy Chiao, recognizable to US film fans from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM [1984] and BLOODSPORT [1988]) who is in the process of painting one of his subordinates… no, not painting a picture of them, actually painting on their body, while raising the price of his nefarious deed on his buyer, a cowboy hat wearin’, southern drawlin’ American from… Ohio? Wtf? Anyway, Felicity (Elizabeth Ashley) get’s pissy about having the price raised and goes back to her middle-man Kwan (Tony Lee) to give him the bad news. Kwan is actually ecstatic about the news because he now believes that the statue is genuine and not some cheap knock-off (why would a Chinese man be so suspicious of forgeries, I wonder?)… Kwan is convinced that the answer is to steal back the statue and there’s only one man who can pull off this job and he’s… MITCHE… err, no, wait, he’s Dan.

Maybe I’m easily amused, but for my money there’s nothing funnier than seeing Joe Don Baker play a brawlin’ toughguy, playing Pai Gow in a Chinese bar, bellowing “Ah, soy!” when he loses all his “champagne money”. Even better he’s ready to turn down the lucrative job of stealing the statue from Lin Toa until he sees Felicity. Now you may be scratching your head thinking she ain’t exactly no Uschi Digard! But hey, the guy’s been living in Hong Kong for a lot of years and I’m sure that seeing an American woman is like beer-goggling with compounded interest. Or, as we find out during the negotiation, he could just be off his freakin’ nut. If some of his peculiarities in MITCHELL (1975) weren’t peculiar enough for you, read on.

After Dan decides that he doesn’t want to steal the statue, Felicity decides to haggle…
Felicity: “There’s nothin’ any good in this world that isn’t too dangerous.”
Dan: ”That’s not what my momma used to say.”
Felicity: “What did your mommy used to tell ya?”
Dan: “Well, she used to say, um, ‘wear your galoshes…’ ‘stay out of trouble…’ I been stayin’ out of trouble lately and I find it’s real nice.”
Felicity: “What do you want?”
Dan: “Hmmm… she used to hold my hand… she’d say ‘don’t worry darlin’ mommy’s here’.”
Felicity: “There’s 25 thousand dollars coming to Kwan, I can add five more, that makes thirty.”
Dan: “…used to hug me a lot too… say ‘everything’s alright, I love you’.”
Felicity: “Look, I’m begging.”
Dan: “Huh?” 

Man, if a golden idol, flamethrowers and a crazy-talkin’ Joe Don Baker doesn’t grab you by the proverbial boo-boo, you got the wrong blog. When all is said and done, Dan decides he will steal the statue in exchange for thirty grand and a roll in the hay with Felicity. How does Joe Don luck out on all these classy parts? Oh, and he needs to be hugged and told “I love you”. Seriously.

Dan busts into Lin Toa’s upper level (how did he know the statue was there?) snags the statue only to be jumped by a couple of thugs who are, apparently, the only criminal badasses in Hong Kong who don’t know a lick of martial arts. After dispatching the mugs with some good ol’ American know-how, Lin’s stooges decide the best way to foil this robbery is to fill the entire bottom level of the building with snakes! Snakes! Why did it have to be… oh, never mind. Too bad they didn't realize who they were dealing with, as Mitch... I mean, Dan, has no problem diving head-first through a window to escape! Doh! They should have put spiders on the window! Dammit!

From here on out it’s double crosses and more action as the statue switches hands, the Chinese government sends in an ass-kicking kung fu agent (Frances Fong), Jim Kelly shows up as an antiques expert, and Burgess Meredith turns in the most eccentric performance of his career as a wealthy wing-nut in a bow tie that wants the statue for himself so that he can live forever and he doesn't care who has to die to make that happen! Still with me? That’s what I said, Jim Kelly as an ass kickin’ antiques expert. Uh huh, damn right, you better think twice about shoplifting that 16th century armoire, cause that dealer might bust a hole in your soul! There are some other great moments to be found in here, including a monster shellfish platter of doom, a martial arts donnybrook in an upscale Los Angeles athletics club, and Felicity claiming that she "can always handle boredom better in a bathtub."

There seems to be nothing Dan likes better than breaking glass and throwing things. Even better, throwing things that break... like people through windows. When the thugs kill Kwan by throwing him through a skylight, Dan settles the score old school by throwing two thugs through two skylights! That’s how it’s done in the US of A punks! In addition to ridiculous amounts of throwing and breakage, there's kung-fu fights a plenty (obviously someone was thinking that this might be Frances Fong’s breakout role - they were wrong), plus a damn cool foot-chase at the climax in which some of Lin Toa’s thugs decide to enlist the help of the locals to chase Dan down by yelling out that he killed a child. This leads to an angry mob of damn near one hundred pissed off Chinese chasing after Dan’s gweilo ass through the narrow streets of Hong Kong. That expression of barely controlled terror on Joe Don's face? Pretty sure you can't chalk that all up to acting. Sure it may be a bit of a stretch to think that Joe Don Baker could outrun anyone, much less a literal hoard of Chinese that collectively weigh less than a Volkswagon Beetle, but astute viewers will notice that the mob is kept at bay by his propensity for throwing things; boxes, ladders, bicycles...

Bob Clouse, is in my opinion, a totally underrated director that made quite a few entertaining little movies during the ‘70s for Warner Brothers, including that little-known film ENTER THE DRAGON (1973). His entry into the “Nature’s Revenge” slash “Animals Attack” subgenre, THE PACK (1977) is a more than worthy entry and his post-apocalypse film THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975) is without question the inspiration for THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981). Clouse sort of slid off of the map, due to terminal illness, in the mid ‘90s after making some less than well received US/HK co-productions. Not to mention a series of notorious stinkers in the ‘80s that some of us still remember with misty-eyed reverence… I’m mean seriously, by my math, GYMKATA (1985) plus "drive-in" equals gold! It’s too bad that Warner Brother’s doesn’t take his work with them (other than ENTER THE DRAGON) seriously enough to at least give them DVD releases. Even to their cynical, corporate, art-blind eyes the amazing casting alone should be selling points. With GOLDEN NEEDLES, Clouse is definitely in his comfort zone and while it may be a bit too silly for some and not silly enough for others, it's definitely a must-see for Joe Don Baker fans, as sort of a kung fu cousin to MITCHELL.

[EDIT] Amazingly NetFlix has added a full-scope version of this film to their rapidly-expanding library of streaming films! Sadly still no DVD release in sight.

My sentiments exactly

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