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?
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.