Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bamboo Gods and Iron Men (1974)

Written by: Ken Metcalfe, Joseph Zucchero
Directed by: Cesar Gallardo
Starring: James Iglehart, Shirley Washington, Chiquito

This is the movie that I thought Hercules Against Karate was going to be. Minus being Italian. Kung fu and blaxploitation crossed paths more than a few times during the brief but incredibly prolific time of popularity of the latter genre. Mostly they involved the black characters knowing martial arts, though, like Dolemite's army of karate-kicking whores (pronounce it, “HOO-ers”, for added fun!). This time around, our smooth-as-a-bottle-of-Colt .45 hero is a champion prizefighter, but he's got his work cut out for him when his wife buys a Buddha statue with a priceless relic inside it.

Cal Jefferson and his wife Arlene are honeymooning in Hong Kong. She talks him into buying her the aforementioned statue and sends it back to their hotel via a courier. Later that day, the Jeffersons are enjoying a boat ride on a river, when they spot a man flailing in the water. This is Charley (his name is actually something like Tsui Li, but he's mute so he can't be constantly correcting Cal and this is an American movie, so it's funny to mispronounce foreign things I guess), and we know he's a good guy because we just saw him rescuing some random woman from being raped by a gang of thugs, who repaid his good citizenship by throwing him in the river.

Cal hauls Charley out and CPRs the water out of his lungs, which according to an ancient Chinese custom (really, is there any other kind?), Charley's life now belongs to Cal until the debt can be repaid in kind. Good thing for Cal, too, because that's going to come in handy a lot sooner than he thinks. A couple of bad dudes (who undoubtedly punch wooden doors into uniformly sized and shaped chunks and throw barrels at people in their spare time) named Ambrose and Leonardo want the Buddah statue because it holds they key to an ancient Chinese secret (once again, contemporary Chinese secrets are pretty thin on the ground) that, according to the centuries-dead scientist who discovered it, may be powerful enough to destroy all of China and maybe the world...

It's cute that AIP didn't think their audience would be able to tell the difference between Filipino and Chinese actors. Especially really famous ones like Vic Diaz, who plays a hotel clerk (instantly recognizable even if you don't know his name, because I'm pretty sure he's been in every Filipino exploitation movie ever made), and Chiquito, who plays Charley. That and the scenery in the Philippines doesn't look a great deal like China. Which is probably why they decided to have Cal and Arlene move their honeymoon from Hong Kong to Manila not long into the movie. Still, Charley looks about as Chinese as I do.

Even for someone like me, who genuinely enjoys corny old humor that would have been stale when my grandfather was my age, the comedy in this flick is pretty bad. What really saves it are the action scenes, although I think this was more by accident than intention. All the kung fu and fist fights, most notably our introduction to Charley when he beats up the gang of would-be rapists, are much less balletic than you expect to see in a martial arts movie – even a cheap one from the 70's. In fact, sometimes they're downright sloppy and clumsy, with people tripping over their own feet, failing to land blows, or stumbling over their opponents. I would wager that's because the stunt coordinator wasn't very good or didn't have much time to choreograph a good fight, or the actors weren't very good at the moves, or a combination of all of the above, rather than a deliberate decision to shoot for realism. But that's what they got, one way or the other, and even though it makes the fights a little less of an adrenaline rush to watch, I applaud the movie for its natural-looking fight action.

It's not going to change your life, but if you're looking to kill 90 minutes with some beers or maybe a bourbon or two (or both, if you hate your liver like I do), and a fun action flick that's a little rough around the edges but doesn't demand too much from its audience, you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse.

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