Sep 11, 2009

DVD Review: George Lazenby In The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

DVD Review: George Lazenby In The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

As a fan of George Lazenby, I’ve wanted to see The Man From Hong Kong for some time now. But viewing the recent documentary Not Quite Hollywood–which features a lot of stellar clips from the film as well as an interview with Lazenby–really inspired me to finally watch it. A pariah in the mainstream American and British film industries after walking away from James Bond before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service even opened, Lazenby drifted around the margins of international cinema for most of the Seventies, making exploitation pictures in Italy, Hong Kong and Australia. While at the time that must have been frustrating for him, he actually ended up working in three of the most exciting international film scenes of the Seventies. The Italian horror market came alive when Dario Argento breathed new life into it with his seminal giallo, The Bird With Crystal Plumage. (Lazenby’s giallo entry was the somber Who Saw Her Die? in 1972) The Australian film industry was really in an embryonic phase, and prior to getting serious later in the decade with movies like Breaker Morant and Picnic at Hanging Rock, it emerged in the form of the wildly creative exploitation films celebrated in Not Quite Hollywood. And the Hong Kong film industry, of course, was enjoying its all-time zenith thanks to the kung fu craze sparked by Bruce Lee. Lazenby, always an impressive fighter (as showcased on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), signed a contract with Golden Harvest, the company that had made Lee famous, with the plan of starring opposite Lee in several films. Unfortunately, that was just before the star’s tragic and premature death. (In fact, Lee’s Wikipedia entry claims that Lee was due to have dinner with Lazenby the very night of his death.) Lazenby ended up starring instead with the likes of the great Angela Mao in Stoner, and the not-quite-as-great pretender to Lee’s throne, Jimmy Wang Yu in The Man From Hong Kong.

While his fighting skills are impressive (and seen to better effect in period epics like the Zatoichi films and the classic Master of the Flying Guillotine), Wang Yu simply isn’t as exciting to watch in action as Bruce Lee is, especially in contemporary settings. He’s also nowhere near as charming a leading man. It’s unfortunate that the film centers on such a charisma vacuum, but The Man From Hong Kong has enough delirious, gonzo fun going for it (thanks to ubiquitous Aussie action director Brian Trenchard-Smith) that it manages to overcome that handicap. It also affords Lazenby the opportunity to steal the show. Oozing with a confidence not seen in his 007 outing (my theory is that it comes from his impressive mustache, which could easily go toe-to-toe with Timothy Dalton’s Flash Gordon ‘stache), Lazenby relishes his villainous role and chews up all the scenery he can get his mouth on. He’s got swagger to spare (presumably the same swagger that did him few favors off screen amongst the Bond crew) and that comes through both in his fight scenes and his scenes of shouting orders at minions while modeling the best in wide-collared Seventies sleazebag fashions. His character’s arrogance when fighting Wang Yu’s Inspector Fang Sing Leng may come from the steel rods hidden in the wrappings on his fists or the army of henchmen ready to leap to his aid, but the fact is Lazenby stands his ground well against the trained martial artist, and doesn’t appear at all mismatched, as untrained Western villains sometimes do in kung fu movies. (Lazenby did have some martial arts training, and it shows.)

Lazenby’s drug kingpin, Jack Wilton, is introduced a half hour into the film wearing white karate garb with a musical sting very deliberately reminiscent of the James Bond Theme. (This isn’t the sort of film to shy away from in-jokes.) He’s the sort of guy who entertains his guests by shooting apples off of women’s heads with his crossbow. But he’s not one to leave all the fighting to his underlings. "I understand your culture," he says to Fang. "And your language. And your martial arts. Especially those." He goads Wang Yu into a fight at a garden party (under the guise of a "kung fu exhibition") by taunting, "I’ve never met a Chinese yet that didn’t have a... yellow streak." Of course, as soon as the tables turn against him, in rush his goons armed with rakes and hoes!

The ensuing melee is one of many highly entertaining action sequences in The Man From Hong Kong. I was grinning from ear to ear from the very beginning, a drug deal gone sour that leads to a chase and fight atop Australia’s famous landmark Ayers Rock. In his never dull audio commentary (with phoned-in contributions from others), director Brian Trenchard-Smith calls that opening "the most improbable drug deal that you could ever wish to concoct" and says that’s probably why he chose it because "much of the conventions of this film were to reflect the improbable and unlikely stereotypes of action movies at the time." I’m not sure "reflect" is the right word. The movie downright embraces all of the improbable and unlikely stereotypes of action movies at the time (with less intentional parody, I suspect, than Trenchard-Smith now takes credit for), and that’s what makes it so damn enjoyable!

Subsequent setpieces include more melees as well as closed-quarters fighting, a pretty spectacular (and lengthy) car chase, a short-lived foot/motorcycle chase (Wang Yu curtails the bad guy’s getaway plans by knocking him off his bike with a flying kick to the chest), George Lazenby on fire and enough hang-gliding to justify its prominent display in the film’s marketing. The scene where Lazenby (or rather, his jacket) catches on fire, by the way, it the subject of an amusing anecdote in Not Quite Hollywood. After the director demonstrated how safe it was to wear the specially treated, burning coat, the macho George certainly couldn’t turn it down. But when the cameras rolled, he couldn’t get the jacket off! The take used in the movie shows him desperately flailing about trying to get his arm out of the fiery sleeve, and the panic in his eyes isn’t acting. All subjects concerned recall that Lazenby was (justifiably) furious, and Trenchard-Smith claims the actor punched him following the take! Perhaps with the benefit of a selective memory, Lazenby himself denies hitting him, but a stunt man corroborates the story.

Fang is a cop so spectacularly unheeding of rules and regulations that he makes Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer look like champions of due process. To get an idea of just how flagrantly Fang violates the rules of his profession, consider that the Aussie man-bear who sports a remarkable afro/mullet combo and wears his belt around an untucked shirt or tunic, is by comparison the by-the-book cop! (He's the one on the left.)

While cutting his unchecked swathe of violence and destruction across Sydney, Wang Chu spends much of the movie in a blue and white version of Bruce Lee’s famous yellow and black jumpsuit. (It looks kind of like an Emmapeeler, in fact, but he doesn’t wear it nearly as well as Diana Rigg!) The forced comparison doesn’t do Wang Yu any favors, but his impressive fighting skills easily carry him through all the scenes where he doesn’t have to talk. When he does, he’s dubbed (by Roy Chiao, the actor who played Lao Che in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, according to Smith) in an inexplicable John Wayne drawl. I suppose the idea was to emphasize his rule-breaking, lone wolf personal, but it kind of makes him seem like a real jerk (Eurospy hero-style!) in exchanges like this one:

Girl: And do all police officers drive Mercedes?
Him: Only ones in the Special Branch.
Girl: And what’s so special about the special branch?
Him: Allow me to show you.

Cut to sex scene. (And resounding groans.) Trenchard-Smith admits his dialogue is "fairly appalling" but defends it by claiming it’s all "satirical!" Sure, Brian! Either way, it’s entertaining, even in the cringe-inducing moments. But the legacy of The Man From Hong Kong lies not in its dialogue or its acting; it’s in the action, which is uniformly spectacular. (Or possibly in its theme song, "Sky High" by Jigsaw, which is also spectacular and made more of a lasting splash than the film itself in America.) If you’re looking for thoroughly entertaining, well-executed, over-the-top action sequences of the mid-Seventies variety, this film delivers in spades. It’s easily one of Lazenby’s best non-Bond efforts. Furthermore, The Man From Hong Kong left such an unmistakable mark on the genre that it’s hard to shoot action in Sydney without paying homage. It’s influence can be seen in later Australia-set action movies like The Protector and Mission: Impossible II.

The R4 PAL Madman DVD presents a very nice widescreen transfer (certainly much better than the grey market versions that circulated in America for a while). It’s a two-disc affair with good extras–but not quite as good as you might be led to believe by the box. The box states that the second disc includes two bonus films by Brian Trenchard-Smith. What it doesn’t share is that one of those, Hospitals Don’t Burn Down, is an industrial short, made to promote fire safety in hospitals, while the other, Kung Fu Killers, is a documentary on Seventies kung fu and its practitioners. The documentary is actually very good, both on its subject and as a time capsule of the period. But the battered print is not restored or remastered, and it certainly isn’t a feature dramatic film as the omissions on the box might lead one to believe! Other extras are more what you’re expecting. The Australian and Hong Kong trailers are both top-notch. They’re well-cut trailers each with a distinct sort of Seventies voice-over, and they do a great job of conveying the tone of the film. If you don’t have time to show your friends the whole movie, both trailers will give them a nice taste. (And the Hong Kong one even throws in some nudity.) The twenty plus minutes of "never before seen behind-the-scenes footage" contain both alternate takes and some legitimate behind-the-scenes footage, but it’s all MOS (without sound). It would have been great B-roll edited into a whole making-of featurette, cut together with interview subjects, but lacking the sort of budget necessary for such a documentary, it might have livened things up had we at least gotten Brian Trenchard-Smith’s commentary on this material. His commentary on the feature film is clearly the highlight of the disc, special features-wise. He’s self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing at once, a great combination that makes for an audio commentary every bit as engaging as the film itself. And he’s got a great memory, easily recalling stories from the set and doling out fascinating facts about the people involved. As previously mentioned, other contributors to the film occasionally contribute their recollections over a staticky telephone connection.

If you’re a George Lazenby fan, you can’t miss The Man From Hong Kong. And if you have the option of playing PAL discs from different regions, the Madhouse release is definitely the version to get.


David said...

Great review of a fun flick.

'man-bear'? Maaaaate, that's the 'Toecutter'!


Elliot James said...

Excellent review. George was a capable Bond. I thought he was a better JB than Brosnan, Dalton or Craig (who plays 007 as an inarticulate thug, more Jason Bourne than Bond.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, the extra and the screen captures on this release make me think, but I already have a nice copy of the film complete with Director's Audio Commentary and Trailer (a bootleg?).
Thanks though for telling me about this, I will keep my eye out for it. Another great review - Plotter

Christopher Mills said...

I'd like to see this someday.