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Hong Kong goes West - When Hong Kong film makers attempt to break the Western market - part 1

Darren Murray
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Hong Kong goes West - When Hong Kong film makers attempt to break the Western market - part 1

Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Hong Kong cinema produced many films that to this day are considered to be the best action films ever made. Films like Police Story (1985), The Killer (1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991), Hard Boiled (1992) and Full Contact (1992) are still impressing new audiences to this day and it is no surprise that Hollywood producers began to take notice of the popularity of such films.

It was only a matter of time before film makers like John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam would be brought to Hollywood and attempt to incorporate their skills into a Hollywood production. Unfortunately a number of these films never lived up to the directors Hong Kong work, with Hollywood studios putting many restrictions in the film makers way.

Stars like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li didn’t fare any better, with many obstacles put in their way, making many of their Hollywood films pale imitations of their Hong Kong work. Still, there are also a good number of these films that turned out great, even with studio interference.

1970’s

Of course Hollywood had taken an interest in Hong Kong cinema before the 1980’s, with the Kung Fu boom in the 1970’s. This led to the Warner Brothers/Golden Harvest co-production of Enter the Dragon (1973) starring possibly Hong Kong cinema’s biggest star Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee had been introduced to American audiences previously, appearing in the television show The Green Hornet (1966), stealing the show as the iconic Kato. He would also make a memorable appearance in the detective thriller Marlowe (1969).

The success of the Green Hornet in Lee’s native Hong Kong would bring him to Golden Harvest studios, starring in his first lead role in The Big Boss (1971). Further success with his next two films would follow, bringing him to the attention of Hollywood

As well as being headlined by Lee, Enter the Dragon there involved a number of future Hong Kong stars in the production, with a number of the Seven Little Fortunes Opera Troupe appearing such as Sammo Hung featuring at the start of the film as well as Yuen Wah who worked on the film as one of the background fighters as well as working as Bruce Lee’s stunt double.  Eagle eyed viewers may also be able to spot Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in one of the films many fight scenes.

In addition to those future stars, Enter the Dragon gave a small role to Angela Mao as Bruce Lee’s sister and Bolo Yeung who goes one on one with John Saxon in the climax of the film. Lastly there is a small role for legendary action director Tung Wai, who Bruce Lee tells to “concentrate on the finger”.

Considering the amount of Hong Kong talent involved in the production the only major drawback of Enter the Dragon would be the workmanlike direction from Robert Clouse, who shoots most of the action in a pedestrian manner. Luckily the additional work of Bruce Lee choreographing the action managed to save Enter the Dragon with it going on to become one of the highest grossing films of the year. 

Unlike some of the later co-productions between Hollywood and Hong Kong, Enter the Dragon was a major hit and turned out to be one of Bruce Lee’s best films. Unfortunately it would also prove to be his last. This wouldn’t stop Golden Harvest going on to release Game of Death (1979) a number of years later using footage from an unfinished Bruce Lee movie with newly shot footage.

The famous Shaw Brothers would also try to break into the Western market. Although they had some success overseas with their local product, such as King Boxer (1972), they would branch out by co-producing the spaghetti western The Stanger and the Gunfighter (1974). Starring western icon Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh, The Stranger and the Gunfighter is one of the poorer westerns Van Cleef made in the 1970’s with only the appearance from martial arts star Lo Lieh making it stand out from a flooded market of similar production.

In the same year Shaw Brothers would work with Hammer films to co-produce The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), which was slightly more successful. The film was the ninth part in Hammer’s Dracula series and starred Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing once again as Van Helsing. It also featured Shaw Brothers star David Chiang in a supporting role.

As a Hammer film it enjoyable enough, but is not exactly one of its classics. Most surprisingly is how poor the action scenes are considering this was a Shaw Brothers co-production. It was also co-directed by the mighty Chang Cheh although he is not credited on the finished film, which makes it even more surprising how inept some of the fight scenes look.

Shaw Brothers second co-production with Hammer films was actually better realised but is not held in the same acclaim as Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, with the film being panned by a number of critics. Shatter (1974) is a Hong Kong set thriller involving the exploits of Mr Shatter (Stuart Whitman), an international assassin. During the film he teams up with a kung fu expert played by Ti Lung, who helps him track down his money. Ti Lung fares better than David Chiang in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, with his fight scenes being well done, although they’re still not up to the standards of other Shaw Brothers films.

Shatter was originally directed by Monte Hellman before he was replaced three weeks into shooting by Hammer films producer/director Michael Carreras. Carreras would end up being the only credited director on the film although Hellman has since stated through commentary tracks that he directed up to 80% of the completed film. It has never been made clear why Hellman left the picture

The following year Shaw Brothers would involve themselves in the co-production of Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975), a poor realised sequel to the previous hit Cleopatra Jones (1973). Cannonball (1976), executive produced by Run Run Shaw, was a more enjoyable endeavour in the same vein as Death Race 2000 (1975). Like Death Race 2000, Cannonball was directed by Paul Bartel and contained the same type of racing action and humour. It is also one of the only films to have famed movie producer Don Simpson as a credited writer.

Golden Harvest wouldn’t just focus on Hollywood with their co-productions, going to Australia to co-produce the cult movie The Man from Hong Kong (1975). Directed by Brian Trenchard Smith, the film features a number of well shot action scenes, featuring choreography from Sammo Hung, and a good bad guy turn from former James Bond George Lazenby.

The main drawback of The Man from Hong Kong is, surprisingly, the film’s star Jimmy Wang Yu. He is especially wooden in his role, although he fares better in the action scenes than the more dramatic ones. By all accounts, Wang Yu was terrible to work with and didn’t get on with most of the cast and crew, especially director Brian Trenchard Smith.

Compared to Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby comes off looking like Laurence Olivier. The Man from Hong Kong wasn’t Lazenby’s first film with Golden Harvest, with him headlining the previous year’s Stoner (1974). He would go on to make a third film, A Queen’s Ransom (1976), although this was the poorest of his three Golden Harvest films.

Enter the Dragon wouldn’t be the only Hollywood film Golden Harvest studios would be involved in. To follow would be the Robert Mitchum thriller The Amsterdam Kill (1977). Once again directed by Robert Clouse in his usual anonymous style, the star power of Mitchum and action direction by Sammo Hung can’t raise the Amsterdam Kill above anything other than mediocre.

More successful was the Vietnam War film The Boys in Company C (1978). Directed by Sidney J Furie as a co-production between Golden Harvest and Columbia Pictures, The Boys in Company C has since been unfairly overlooked due to similar and perhaps better Vietnam War films being made in its wake.

The Boys in Company C is still noteworthy as being one of the first Vietnam War films to be made after the end of the war and unlike the jingoistic The Green Berets (1968), which was made as the war was still being waged, shows the true cost of war.

Run Run Shaw’s judgement was lacking when he would once again involve himself in a western production with the disaster movie Meteor (1979). Made as a co-production between Shaw Brothers and American International Pictures, Meteor would be one of the poorer disaster movies to come from Hollywood in the 1970’s with not even a star studded cast of Sean Connery, Brian Keith, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda and Karl Malden being able to save it.

What is surprising about the majority of these films is that they don’t contain much to appeal to a Hong Kong audience, with only those featuring main stars like Bruce Lee having anything resembling Hong Kong style action.

1980’s

In 1980 Raymond Chow would try to launch Jackie Chan into the American market with the ill-advised Battle Creek Brawl. Another co-production between Warner Brothers and Golden Harvest, the film would try to recapture the success of the earlier Enter the Dragon even going to hire the same director, Robert Clouse. Jackie Chan has stated that Clouse didn’t use him to his full advantage, cutting down on a lot of his trademark action. Considering how Clouse directs action this is no surprise.

Battle Creek Brawl would turn out be one of Chan’s poorer efforts and pales in comparison with his earlier hit Drunken Master (1978). The action Chan has spoken of is evident, being shot poorly and having Chan using the most basic of moves. The failure of the film at the box office was a major disappointment for both production companies who were expecting it to be the same kind of success as Enter the Dragon.

Slightly more successful was Death Hunt (1981). Produced by Golden Harvest and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Death Hunt has well shot action and features two great tough guy roles for Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. It also has supporting roles for Angie Dickinson, Carl Weathers and Andrew Stevens who had starred in the earlier The Boys in Company C.

Based on the true story of the manhunt of Albert Johnson, known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River. The film is highly fictionalised, making Johnson more of a hero figure in the John Rambo mould. In matter of fact the film has some similarities with First Blood (1982), with Bronson up against the odds but being able to use the environment to his advantage.

In the same year Golden Harvest would produce what is probably the best known of their Hollywood output, Cannonball Run (1981). Although overly serious critics derided the film at the time, it has went on to gain a cult status and is one of star Burt Reynolds highest grossing films. As well as Reynolds, the Cannonball Run featured an all-star cast of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Dom Deluise, Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Chan, Michael Hui and many more.

It would appear that Jackie Chan and Michael Mui were merely there to sell the film to the Asian market, with the both of them only getting limited screen time, although Chan does get involved in a fight scene with Peter Fonda which is a highlight. It was also director Hal Needham’s idea to put outtakes of the film over the end credits, which he had done earlier in Smokey and the Bandit 2 (1980). Jackie Chan was that impressed by this he has incorporated it into most of his films ever since.

Director Hal Needham would stay with Golden Harvest for his next film, the gloriously cheesy Megaforce (1982). With tongue firmly in cheek, Megaforce has a lot to enjoy as long as you watch it in the right frame of mind.

Run Run Shaw would have more critical success with his international endeavours, being one of the co-producers on Blade Runner (1982), which is still highly regarded to this day. He also was an un-credited co-producer on the earlier horror film Blood Rage (1980), but the less said about that the better.

Golden Harvest would go on to produce two films featuring lead performances from Magnum, P.I. (1980) star Tom Selleck. The first of these was the underrated High Road to China (1983), which is one of the more enjoyable adventure films to be made after the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Considering some of the troubles the production had went through, with John Huston originally slated to direct the film before being replaced by Sidney J Furie, who had worked with Golden Harvest previously on The Boys in Company C. It would eventually fall to Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970) director Brian G Hutton to helm the film.

Known in some countries as Raiders of the End of the World, High Road to China has a lot to recommend and is one of the better Hollywood style films that Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest produced. It was also the last film to be directed by Brian G Hutton.

Sadly they would follow up High Road to China with Lassiter (1984), which although has a good leading man in Tom Selleck and solid supporting turns from the likes of Lauren Hutton and Jane Seymour, turned out to be quite a dull world war 2 set thriller, which has none of the fun of High Road to China.

In between the two of these, Golden Harvest also produced the David Niven comedy Better Late than Never (1983). An enjoyable enough comedy that is far from David Niven’s best. The film didn’t exactly do great business from Golden Harvest, with it going straight to television in the U.K. Although the film was made during 1981 it wasn’t released until 1983, which unfortunately was the year Niven died.

More successful was Cannonball Run 2 (1984), which brought back most of the main players from the first film, with a couple of new additions like Shirley Maclaine, Telly Savalas and even Frank Sinatra. Although fun in parts, Cannonball Run 2 pales in comparison to the original.

In 1985 there would be another attempt to launch Jackie Chan onto the American market with The Protector (1985). Directed by James Glickenhaus, The Protector was very different for a Jackie Chan action movie, featuring excessive violence and nudity throughout. It would seem Glickenhaus ego would not let him make a proper Jackie Chan movie, with him trying to put his own stamp on it, akin to his previous film The Exterminator (1981).

Glickenhaus and Chan reportedly were always at odds on how to shoot the action scenes, with Glickenhaus constantly refusing to listen to any of Chan’s suggestions. To paraphrase Glickenhaus, he had stated that no one in America would enjoy the way Chan would shoot an action scene, and that he had made the most successful Jackie Chan movie which would never be surpassed as a mainstream audience had no patience for Chan’s style of movie making.

There is a reason why Chan became one of the biggest action stars in the world and Glickenhaus went on to make Timemaster (1995), which thankfully was his last film as director. I do have to admit that I have a fondness for Glickenhaus’s Blue Jean Cop (1988), which shows that even poor film makers can make good films.

Due to the fall out between Chan and Glickenhaus, two versions of The Protector were released. Both versions are considerably different from each other. The Hong Kong release excised all the nudity and a great deal of the gratuitous violence that was involved, with Chan reshooting a number of scenes to make it feel more like a real Jackie Chan movie. Both versions ended up under performing at the box office, and put a halt for the time being on Jackie Chan’s Hollywood career.

Celebrated horror director John Carpenter would also end up making his own Hong Kong style action movie at this time, Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Carpenter has commented in the past that he is a big Hong Kong movie fan, pointing out Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain (1982) as being a major influence on Big Trouble in Little China. Big Trouble in Little China would actually surpass Zu Warriors for sheer enjoyment.

Although Big Trouble in Little China was not a financial success upon release, it has since garnered a much deserved cult status. It is not hard to see why with an excellent lead performance from Kurt Russell and able support from Kim Cattrall and Dennis Dun. It fits in with this article due to the appearance of some notable Hong Kong performers such as Conan Lee and Cater Wong, who plays one of the main villains in the film. 

In 1986 famed action director Yuen Kwai would make his Hollywood debut with No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) which was produced by Ng See-yuen, producer on Jackie Chan’s earlier hits Snake in the Eagles Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978). Although the movie takes a more Hollywood approach to storytelling, reminiscent of The Karate Kid (1984), there are still parts of the film which are pure Hong Kong cinema, such as the lead character being taught martial arts by the ghost of Bruce Lee.

No Retreat, No Surrender is also notable as featuring one of the first main roles for Jean Claude Van Damme, who stars as the films main antagonist. On re-release the film was sold of the back of Jean Claude Van Damme even though it is only a supporting role. The idea of including the ghost of Bruce Lee can leave a bad taste in the mouth, although it does make the film stand out from usual tournament style movies. The part of Bruce Lee’s ghost was played by Korean actor Tai Chung Kim, who had stood in for Bruce Lee previously in Game of Death.

No Retreat, No Surrender turned out to be a medium success at the box office, leading to Ng See-yuen’s Seasonal films to forge ahead with a sequel. Not able to lure back the original films stars Kurt McKinney or Jean Claude Van Damme, it was decided to go for a total new cast and make it an in name only sequel.

No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (1987) would turn out to be a better film than its predecessor, with director Yuen Kwai not being restricted by the restraints of making a tournament movie. This time we are now in action adventure territory with Loren Avedon, Max Thayer and Cynthia Rothrock taking over as the films leads, going up against villain Matthias Hues.

The sequel is not unlike B Movie Best of the Best 2 (1993), in that it follows a tournament film up with a violent revenge movie that has little to do with the original. No Retreat, No Surrender 2 is a more violent film than the original featuring a lot of death and destruction.

Removed from the action thriller genre would be Wayne Wang’s satirical take on Louis Chu’s novel Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989). Headlined by Russell Wong, who is better known as an American actor, although has still starred in the odd Hong Kong feature such as Ronny Yu’s China White (1989), and the later Satin Steel (1994).

Wong is much like his brother Michael, in that he can sometimes appear wooden, which is evident in a number of scenes throughout. Luckily his co-star Cora Miao takes up the slack. It also features a great sleazy performance by the always excellent Eric Tsang as a womanising gangster. Also in supporting roles is fellow Hong Kong actors Law Lan and Philip Chan.

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Bruce LeeHammerHollywoodHong KongJackie ChanJean Claude Van DammeSeasonal FilmsShaw BrothersYuen Kwai

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