Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Gweilo Dojo: THE MANCHURIAN AVENGER (1982)

If there’s one thing I like it’s a good western. Preferably a revisionist western with a twisting plot, oodles of visual style and gritty retribution. Films like DJANGO KILL (1967) and THE PRICE OF DEATH (1971), two completely different styles of films, use the western setting as a launching pad for stories and characters that are so far removed from the pre-‘60s cowboys and Indians archetype that they are not so much westerns, per se, as period pieces.

If there’s another thing I like it’s a Western-made martial arts film. Preferably with real champion martial artists and a completely ludicrous plot about world domination. Films like KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE (1979) and FORCE: FIVE (1981) ape their Hong Kong counterparts but with totally anglo sensibilities, making them a breed unto themselves.

So what could be better than creating a Frankenfilm hybrid of the two genres? Sort of a Reese’s peanutbutter cup of exploitation films. You got a western in my kung fu! You got kung fu in my western! Two great tastes that taste great together, right? Sadly, aside from classics of the subgenre like THE FIGHTING FIST OF SHANGHAI JOE (1972), the kung fu western tends to be a good excuse to bungle both genres and THE MANCHURIAN AVENGER takes this unhappy trend to an all new low.
The basic premise of the film is that Joe (Bobby Kim, looking like he could start a career as Charles Bronson's stunt double) is returning to his home town in dirt-water Colorado after fleeing as a child. As we learn in flash-back, his father was murdered by an unseen man and his gang who were after gold. Upon returning, Joe finds that his brother and sister are now, some 25 years later, are being beaten and harassed by a local black-clad thug, Sam and his gang who are… yes, you guessed it, looking for gold.

On the coach-ride back home the stage is beset by Mexican banditos, or rather some community theater actors in Poncho Villa mustaches sporting what is unequivocally the worst freakin’ Mexican accents since master Mexicano thespian Speedy Gonzales graced the screen. Honestly, these guys are about as legit la raza as Jeff Dunham's Jose, the jalapeño on a stick. Naturally Joe kicks their asses while they stand there and stare at him. Right as they are ready to kidnap him anyway (because he must know where gold can be found), Joe whips out a throwing star and decapitates a rattlesnake that was within several feet of biting Diego, the leader of the bandits. Of course now Diego owes Joe his life and an uneasy bond is formed. “You, you are some kind of devil who look like a man. A man that fight like a lion!” exclaims Diego. Matter of fact his long-winded admiration of Joe’s fighting ability is repeated so often that there will come a point where you will be ready to hurl a throwing star at your TV screen the next time Diego shouts “he fight like a lion!” Seriously, how the hell would a Mexican bandit in the 1800s know anything about lions and their fighting abilities?

Upon arriving in town Joe discovers that his uncle has been killed by Sam’s men because (wait for it), they thought he had some gold stashed somewhere. Now Joe must avenge his family against Sam and his men by means of kicking them in the head while they practice the ancient white-guy martial art style of Standing-Still-and-Waiting-to-get-Hit. Turns out Sam and his men are merely lackeys for the local crimelord Master Cheng. Cheng, when not flaying the skin off of innocents with a straight razor, amuses children with magic tricks before bedtime. Since Joe is such a threat to a man who’s mystic martial arts can levitate objects and control the very elements (trust me, this sounds much more exciting than it really is), Cheng must send for reinforcements. His ace in the hole? A group of five badasses called The Four Winds, who dress in rags and live in a cave. Why are these five guys called The Four Winds? Beats the shit outta me. When Cheng’s lacky gazes upon the one with the neat neatly combed haircut, he stammers “Kamikaze, I am honored to meet you!” before comically fainting. You bet your ass son! That’s Bill Mothafucking “Superfoot” Wallace standing in front of you! ...pretending to have at least a shred of integrity.

This all leads to a showdown between Joe and Diego against Cheng’s men and The Four Winds. There are two climactic duels, the first being between Joe and Kamikaze which you’d think would be amazing. I mean, hell, this is what we have been waiting 80 minutes for right? Director Ed Warnick (of whom, inconceivably, this film is his only credit), takes what should be an easy score and fumbles it with extreme prejudice. Instead of tireless choreography allowing for exciting fight sequences, Warnick takes the easy way out and shoots all of the action from behind the attacker and the attackee, so that the performers can miss by a country mile and supposedly no one will be the wiser. In the end Kamikaze disappears in a cloud of smoke and Joe discovers that Cheng was the man who killed his father. But seriously, by this point you won’t give a flying crap, in the same way you won’t care that you never find out if anyone had any frickin' gold to begin with!

Yeah, MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE this is not, but it has the potential to be entertaining. While some kung fu westerns tend to faceplant by making the proceedings slapstick comedy, for the most part MANCHURIAN AVENGER plays it straight... I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. The acting is so amateurish, in a surprisingly unamusing way, that at times it seems like Warnick is trying to elicit laughs from the intentionally broken English of the Mexican and Chinese characters. At other times he is clearly trying to get laughs from Cheng's yellow-bellied (oh stop groaning!) lackey whose whiny cowardice is supposed to provide comic relief, but does nothing more than add to this film's extensive list of sins.

The movie is super low-budget with a bare minimum of sets and non-existant production values, and in spite of the R-rating has nothing except the shot of a removed hand to warrant this. Don't expect this Manchurian Joe to be gouging out eyes and ripping out hearts like Shanghai Joe. No sir. Just some reasonably impressive kicks that obviously don't come anywhere near connecting. Also, the day for night shots are so badly done that at times it is impossible to see anything at all. There's also no real visual style with scenes being a collection of close-ups that appear to be edited with a shotgun. All this would be forgivable if the film wasn’t so deadly slow paced. Warnick lingers on long shots of people slowly walking, sitting and lying still,  punctuated by dialogue flatter than Paris Hilton’s brainscan. In addition, for no other conceivable reason than to pad out the films running time, Warnick has a bit where Joe wanders out into the brush and has a five minute long flashback to scenes that we just saw! This excruciatingly monotonous concoction could still be elevated by some great action, but Warnick clearly doesn’t have the money or the patience for heavily choreographed action sequences delivering fight scenes that look as if they were improvised on the spot. It’s one thing to waste a perfectly good premise; it’s another thing to waste the awesomeness of Bill Wallace. That’s just criminal, amigo.

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