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DIR: Sammo Hung
What’s It All About?
The story is very basic. Sammo and the various members of his stock company play convicts, drafted in by the military just after the end of the Vietnam war, their mission is to capture and destroy a large cache of weapons before a resurgent Vietcong can get their hands on it. Along the way they are aided by Vietnamese guerillas and a local rebel (played by Sammo’s opera brother and protégée Yuen Biao)
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Martial arts films have always been largely a cult concern, and for some reason, unlike Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (and latterly, to some degree, Tony Jaa) Sammo Hung never really broke into mainstream consciousness, and when he did it was with Jackie in films like Wheels on Meals and Project A.
Why Should You See It?
Eastern Condors is one of Sammo Hung’s most entertaining films. It has neither the character depth of The Prodigal Son, nor the insight into the history of martial arts of Warriors Two, but this Dirty Dozen riffing war movie is a pretty relentless thing, boasting some of Sammo’s best and most energetic action sequences (which is saying a great deal).
Though it lacks Jackie Chan (who was shooting Project A: Part 2), the film is otherwise a roll call of martial arts cinema talent, in addition to Sammo and Yuen Biao you have Lam Ching Ying, Yuen Woo Ping, Yuen Wah, Corey Yuen Kwai and Billy Lau, as well as Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor in a character part. Okay, Ngor’s performance is very broad and silly, and characterisation all round is generally thin (though Sammo and his wife Joyce Godenzi, who plays one of the guerillas, both give strong performances, as does Yuen Wah as a memorable villain) but the acting is hardly the point here.
The story is also pretty perfunctory; a mere framework on which the action can be hung, but what action it is. Where Jackie Chan’s action was always energetic and comic, Sammo’s tended to be punchier and more brutal, and that’s certainly felt in Eastern Condors, bodies are mown down with bullets and there are stabbings and slashings aplenty, along with some furious martial arts action. There are several outstanding sequences involving Yuen Biao, whose lightning speed is put to good use in a fight with Yuen Wah, which ends with Biao being kicked so hard into a small stairway that he just about folds in half.
An intense set piece arises when the group are captured by some VC remnants, but between the more visceral moments of this scene is a disturbing Russian Roulette sequence in which kids fire the revolver at captives, Eastern Condors isn’t a film heavily concerned with social commentary, but this shocking and angry moment is perhaps the exception (it’s also a moment echoed in John Woo’s later, excellent, ‘Nam movie Bullet in the Head)
As for Sammo himself, he acquits himself brilliantly as a director, bringing all his skill to the table to bring out the best in each of his co-stars, and ensuring that everyone has a moment in the sun, and as star he’s equally impressive. For this film (perhaps influenced by the presence of Yuen Woo Ping) Sammo wanted to do more aerial stunts and flying kicks, and generally be more agile, so he lost a great deal of weight, remaking his physique from ‘fat’ to ‘brick shithouse’. He’s still physically imposing enough to threaten real force with his mere presence, but he’s also much more nimble, and able to execute more complex and intricate moves, in fact this film probably sees him at his absolute physical peak, and the action benefits from it greatly be it the scene where he stalks VC armed only with leaves, the aerial stunt that sees him leap into a machine gun nest and lay waste to the crew or the climatic action scene’s array of flying kicks and complex fights.
Eastern Condors is dumb, make no mistake, but it’s dumb fun, with some of the best martial arts sequences that the great Sammo Hung ever put on film, and if that’s not reason enough to see it then I don’t know what is.
The final fight sequence (duh!)
How Can You See It?
The UK DVD is deleted, so look for it second hand as it boasts a good interview with Sammo Hung and a solid restored picture. The US DVD is still in print and reasonably priced on Amazon.
Next Week: Atypical revenge movie KATALIN VARGA