Apr 10, 2007

Review: Wonder Women (1973)

As part of his two-month long Grindhouse Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino screened his personal print of the ultra-rare Wonder Women at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles last Wednesday night on a double-bill with The Female Bunch. Even though there’s decidedly nothing "Euro" about it (Wonder Women was made by Americans in the Philippines!), Wonder Women is essentially a Sixties Eurospy movie transplanted to another continent and anther decade, the 1970s. It has all the usual Sixties Eurospy hallmarks: evil Oriental villain with an island full of beautiful, deadly, scantily-clad babes (why is it always a babe army?), weird science (unusual organ transplants), cool chases in exotic but low-budget locations, an "escape from the island as the base blows up," finale and, most importantly, a supremely obnoxious hero.

Biker star Ross Hagen sports a helmet of reddish hair, amber-tinted sunglasses, an egotistical swagger, and pick-up lines like "Baby, you’ve got great legs!" as CIA agent turned insurance investigator Mike Harbor. (Yes, this is another in that curious spy sub-genre about the thrilling, sexy world of international insurance investigation. The category also includes Ring Around the World, Some Girls Do and the granddaddy of them all, Deadlier Than the Male.) Harbor’s chest-hair-exposing, wide-collared shirts and endless assortment of safari suits are even enough to make you long for Joe Walker’s sleazy Sixties wardrobe! Harbor actually might be an even bigger jerk than Walker, accepting his assignment with great reluctance, demanding twice the fee he’s offered and then acting like he’s doing his employer (Lloyds of London, of course) a huge favor just by existing. And he doesn’t think twice about plowing through innocent civilians in a car chase, or punching a woman. (Though, to be fair, these Wonder Women punch back–hard.)

Harbor’s mission is to recover a kidnapped jai-alai star, insured by Lloyds for millions. Most "B" spy movies recycle the same old James Bond plots, but I think Wonder Women actually has the impressive distinction of being the only genre entry about a kidnapped jai-alai star. The athlete has been taken by a band of four beautiful female assassins working for the mysterious Dr. Tzu (top-billed Nancy Kwan, of The Wrecking Crew). Dr. Tzu has invented an "anti-rejection serum" which allows her to transplant any organ successfully. Along with her money man, Gregorious (exploitation legend Sid Haig playing a dandy, if you can believe it, complete with frilly shirt, walking stick and his own funky theme music!), Dr. Tzu has developed a cottage industry transplanting decrepit, wealthy old men’s brains into the bodies of younger, perfect physical specimens. Her Wonder Women obtain these specimens by surrounding athletes, striking intimidating poses to a delicious, ultra-Seventies porno-funk waa-waa score, and attacking with judo, nets and tranquilizer darts.

Harbor gets on Tzu’s trail by meeting a contact at a sporting event (a cock fight, in this case) only to have the contact silently murdered right next to him. (The following year, The Man With the Golden Gun would feature a remarkably similar scene!) When he gets too close, Tzu assigns her top killer, redhead Linda (Maria De Aragon, whose greatest fame would come from a considerably less sexy role–as alien bounty hunter Greedo in Star Wars!) to eliminate Harbor. She seduces him, and after he blows her mind with his amazing sexual prowess (despite being made in the Seventies, Wonder Women doesn’t succumb to the decade’s trend of gratuitous nudity, and remains just as chaste as a Sixties Eurospy movie), tries to kill him in his hotel room. Needless to say, she doesn’t succeed, but not for want of trying.

They throw each other around the room and exchange judicious judo blows before she escapes, still wearing her skimpy night things. Harbor has time to quickly pull on a safari suit and then gives chase. Here, the filmmakers pull out all the stops for a tour-de-force setpiece that brilliantly utilizes all the best scenery Manilla has to offer, from the hotel lobby into the streets. After dashing through the market square, Maria hops into a Jeep taxi, and Harbor follows in his own Jeep taxi. The taxis jump over things, crash through things, hit things (including an unlucky traffic warden, which was real and an accident, according to the stunt coordinator; luckily, the man shook it off) and generally disrupt Manilla commerce. This is a long, really amazing chase sequence. By this point in the movie, you’ll have completely forgotten about the low budget and the sometimes sub-par acting. This gonzo, gleefully destructive chase sequence, which is as much fun to watch as those involved clearly had making it, completely draws you in, and you might as well be watching a full-blown Hollywood spectacle.

Harbor manages to eventually track Linda down, and uses her to infiltrate Dr. Tzu’s island. Of course, if you’ve ever seen any spy movie you know where that’s headed (the aforementioned escaping and exploding), but Wonder Women does throw in the extra exploitation movie bonus of freaks! Dr. Tzu has kept all of her transplant experiments that went awry (including a seven-foot tall basketball player with a lightbulb in his head) in cages, and during the mayhem they escape and wreak havoc. The freaks move like jive zombies; their slow, dance-like gait reminded me of the similar dancing, mutant freaks in an episode of the brilliantly weird Britcom The Mighty Boosh.

Harbor shoots his way through this chaotic climax with a huge, double-barreled firearm that falls somewhere between a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun. He saves the jai-alai player, saves the day, and gets one of the many girls before facing one last, strange surprise. Cue the catchy theme song, "Wonder Women," and the movie’s over, having flown by, rather than dragged by, as some low budget spy movies tend to. Wonder Women is unapologetic, delirious, tongue-in-cheek fun. I hope one of the niche DVD companies like Dark Sky or No Shame sees fit to release it on disc one day. In the meantime, if you ever have an opportunity to catch this one, make sure you don’t pass it up. It’s like an American Kommissar X for the Seventies–but without the boring bits.

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