Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Dragon Missile (1976)

Sima Jun (Lo Lieh) is the favourite henchman of an unnamed high official (Ku Feng) of a very nasty disposition. Whenever someone displeases the lord, he sends out Sima Jun to behead the perpetrator with his Dragon Missile, a pair of metal boomerangs that explode through solid objects (and make an awesome singing saw sound).

Now, destiny has put in motion some karmic payback for Sima Jun's boss. He has developed an impressive, painful and quite lethal boil on his back, and no doctor seems to be able to cure it, which - given the lord's tendency to mood swings - leads to a lot of headless physicians.

Quite bothered by the thoughts of his death, the lord lets his people kidnap the imperial physician Dr. Fu (Hao Li-Jen). At first, the doctor is quite reluctant to help, but finally identifies the lord's illness as "100 birds worshipping the phoenix" (cue gasps here), a sickness that can only be cured by something called the longevity rattan. Fortunately, Fu's old associate, the hermit Tan (Yeung Chi-Hing) is in the possession of the root, and Fu is willing to write a letter to convince his old friend to part with it. He's even lying in it about whom the cure is supposed to help in the knowledge that Tan wouldn't give his magical root to someone as evil as the lord. Of course, Fu also signs his own death letter writing this. This lord guy really is a bit of an arse.

The lord sends Sima Jun out to fetch his cure, but his ambitious underling Yang (Man Man) has had quite enough of his bosses' love for someone played by Lo Lieh, so he sends a group of jobless martial arts experts to "help" Sima Jun - to kill him after they have acquired the root, of course.

Obviously, this can't end well. Sure enough, the bad guys have to kill the hermit to get the herb, leaving his daughter Xiao Li (Nancy Yen) with a mighty hankering for vengeance. Then, Sima Jun's old brother-in-training Er Long (Lau Wing), steals the longevity rattan (who knows why) and hides it with his blind, kung fu fighting mother. One dead mother later, Er Long also swears vengeance on Sima Jun.

Before any of that sweet, sweet vengeance can take place, there's first time for the other martial artists and Sima Jun to squabble and try to kill each other, for the seekers of vengeance to ally themselves with one of those martial artists, Miss Sha (Terry Lau), and for development of a way to counter the mighty dragon missile.

The Dragon Missile's plot sounds much more complicated than it actually is. In fact, it is mostly an excuse for some excellent fight scenes and for having Lo Lieh play the bad guy, yet still get first billing. Most of the weird stuff - like the dragon missile itself, or Miss Sha's use of Wolverine's claws - is just the kind of flourish Ni Kuang (the guy who wrote this and seemingly every other Shaw Brothers film) couldn't help but put into his scripts, and that is bound to make any film quite a bit more entertaining.

Besides being full of pointless (and therefore wonderful) details, Ni Kuang's script is also on the cynical side of the Shaw Brother's wuxia/martial arts output (the studio's exploitation films always were like that), far from the rather romantic point of view many wuxia films have at their core even when they are about bloody vengeance.

The Dragon Missile's central figure is without any conscience, but most of his enemies aren't any better either. Yang's martial artists are mercenaries who don't have a problem with stabbing someone in the back if it helps their career and even our nominal heroes Er Long and Xiao Li don't think twice about allying themselves with someone as morally dubious as Miss Sha. The film never directly comments on any of this, but I can't help but feel there's a good reason for the fact that the final fight ends with Sima Jun struck by his own dragon missile in his back.

Apart from its more cynical (some would say realistic) disposition, the movie is produced to the typically high Shaw Brothers standard of '76, which means stock actors playing stock characters with agreeable solidness, bloody and fast fights shot so that the audience can actually see what's going on in them and a delightful sense for the silly that isn't yet ready to drift into the direction of the batshit insane.

How this film fits into the larger body of work of its director Meng Hua Ho however is anybody's guess. The man's filmography is all over the place, going from this, the Black Magic films, four Journey to the West films, to an excellent wuxia like The Lady Hermit, and I've never been able to get a fix on him. Sure, you could call him a work-for-hire-director who did exactly what the studio was paying him for and be done with it, but his best films are a bit too lively for me to accept that conclusion. As people like Joel Schumacher or Uli Lommel show again and again, there's just no need to put any effort into your films if your just working for a paycheck, so I tend to suspect a bit more ambition behind the films of someone who is putting some effort into them.


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