May 8, 2007

Review: Stoner (1974)

One of the final nights of Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse festival at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles was an Angela Mao double-feature that included Stoner, starring George Lazenby. Stoner was one of a handful of kung-fu movies Lazenby made in the Seventies, a rather weird legacy for the one-time 007. It’s possible to find on import DVDs of dubious legality, but the transfer quality is generally poor. The print screened at the festival (from Tarantino’s personal collection) was as pristine as grindhouse prints ever come.

Stoner begins in true exploitation style, with a half-naked woman writhing on an altar at the feet of a sadistic cult leader as his red-robed followers look on. None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the plot to come; it merely sets the tone. What does inform the plot is how strung out she is, and how desperate she is for another "happy pill," the new designer drug only the swami can give her. The evening’s drug-fueled orgy leaves the blonde dead or near-dead (depending on which version you see) on the temple floor the next morning as a blustery, mustache-y and unmistakably Seventies Lazenby (considerably bulked up from his Bond days) storms in shouting her name, Melanie. Apparently she was his girlfriend. (Or maybe his sister.) And, apparently, he’s a Sydney narcotics cop ironically named Stoner.

Stoner is a loose-cannon, tough guy cop in the Dirty Harry mold, and his punch-first-ask questions-later style investigation/mission of revenge quickly takes him through the phony cult leader, his Chinese connection, a gang of motorcycle thugs, and finally out of Australia entirely, to Macau.

Meanwhile (and entirely coincidentally), Taiwanese detective Angela Li (Angela Mao) is assigned by her chief to the same investigation from a different angle. The supplier of the happy pills, Mr. Big (I think... no relation to Yaphet Kotto!), has been smuggling his product from Macau to Taipei (or perhaps vice-versa; I can’t quite recall) via retired ships bound for the scrap yard, which he then bids a fortune for at auction on the other end. Both Lazenby and Mao follow their respective trails to a Buddhist temple on an island in Macau. There, frustratingly, they don’t meet, but each pursue their own plan of attack.

Lazenby’s brusque approach draws the attention of the gang, who send first some street thugs to beat him up, and then a rather lacking femme fatale to seduce him and take compromising pictures. I’m not sure why they do that, other than to justify a very tame sex scene, because the bad guys proceed to do nothing at all with the pictures.

Mao has more entertaining adventures, disguising herself as a local street vendor outside the temple and incurring the ire of Mr. Big’s men, who run a protection racket on the vendors. At night she sneaks onto one of the villain’s boats, creating the opportunity for some very welcome (but sadly brief) kung fu action showcasing the actress’s considerable martial arts abilities.

After discovering that the sacred herbal concoction Mr. Big dispenses at his temple to heal the sick contains heroin (as to why, I’m really unclear. He doesn’t seem like a very philanthropic kind of guy, but the drug appears to have medicinal effects on those who drink it, who all seem too poor for the old "hook ‘em on free samples" ploy that other Mr. Big used!), Mao plots to infiltrate the temple at night via an underground cave.

Good ol’ George, meanwhile, hires a boat to take him there. For some reason (perhaps dictated by the alopecia Lazenby allegedly suffered while making the film) his plan calls for him to alter his appearance by shaving his mustache en route, an act which earned a hearty cheer from the audience. For obvious reasons, I can’t say that his ‘70s facial hair was the biggest mistake of Lazenby’s career, but it certainly wasn’t his best choice, either. Unencumbered by upper lip growth, he not only looks more like his Bond-self that spy fans are familiar with, but transforms into a different person. He relaxes a bit, and his performance becomes looser, the character more fun. His line delivery even changes for the better (could the mustache have been muffling his delivery, or somehow making every line sound like a snarl? Unlikely, I guess, since I’m not convinced it’s his voice we’re hearing on the English-dubbed print, but still perplexing!), and Stoner suddenly develops a sense of humor.

Clean-shaven, Lazenby finally encounters Mao as they both break into the temple. It is a huge problem with Stoner that the hero and heroine don’t meet until the third act, but once they do things really come alive. Lazenby and Mao work pretty well together, and she brings out the best in him. The villains capture our would-be heroes and force-feed them happy pills, giving Stoner a chance to act his name, and resulting in some funny Lazenby moments. There’s a big final fight, naturally, in Chin’s wonderfully Seventies, disco-lit secret pad, complete with a rotating floor and desk. Mao is the expert and she gets the best fighting here, but Lazenby holds his own and gets some good action too as the duo takes on dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of henchmen.

Stoner is absolutely worth tracking down for fans of Mao and especially Lazenby, considering there aren’t that many places to see him play an action hero, but kind of hard to recommend to anyone else. As you may have gleaned from my rather uncertain recap, the plot was never entirely clear, and to call it disjointed might be giving it too much credit. See it if you have an opportunity, and if you’re prepared for some mindless kung fu antics, but don’t waste time and money seeking it out. Unless, of course, you're just dying to see waitresses (serving the villain's guests) in uniforms with holes cut out for their bare breasts, and you have no other place to see such a thing. I couldn't end this review without mentioning that little detail.

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