Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fantasy Mission Force (1984) and Fire Dragon (1986)

Fantasy Mission Force

During World War II, several generals, including Abraham Lincoln, have been kidnapped by the Japanese nazis. The government think over who to send, and seeing that James Bond is busy, Rocky isn't suitable, and Snake Plissken is dead, they settle on Don Wen, who proceeds to assemble a crack squad made up of Singing hobo and thief Old Sun, prison escape artist Grease Lightning, con man Billy, his psychotic on-off girlfriend Lily, as well as a military commander and his nervous underling Stone. Together, these kooky criminals and fighters face of against many threats, including a tribe of Amazons, hopping vampires in a haunted house, and finally a legion of nazis in muscle cars...

Fantasy Mission Force is truly a special film! One of the strangest films I've seen, which is not a statement to be taken lightly. It's full of absolutely deranged moments, from a random musical number, to goofy slapstick comedy, crazy anachronisms, a hilariously unsubtle message about greed, and all the other assorted weirdness that occurs throughout, some of which has been mentioned above, and some I'll get into later.

The humour in Fantasy Mission Force is...odd. Odd in the respect that while this is a comedy, a lot of what makes it funny is either down to the dubbing, the awful print, and unintentional laugh factor, as well as the intentional gags. The movie is amusing, though whether or not its comedy is one's cup of tea may vary from person to person. Something I found is that there are some moments that are meant to be funny, aren't, but end up being funny in the process!

On one hand, a good quality release of this movie would be great, and it certainly deserves it, but on the other hand, a lot of its charm is down to the super low and sometimes dreadful quality, like when scenes are cut off early, or the print goes static-y, or when it actually craps out, giving way to a VCR blue screen for several seconds! These moments are hilarious, and they'd be completely missing in a high quality version.

One aspect to Fantasy Mission Force that sadly is legitimately hampered by the crappy quality is the effects. They're surprisingly good, and it's clear that despite feeling so cheap, this film had quite a budget! It just doesn't show as much thanks to the print looking like it was dragged though a swamp.

The story moves along pretty well at a nice pace, even if it is basically just a series of unrelated diversions as the characters make their way to the plot, as it were. How the Amazon segment concludes is a bit weird and potentially off-putting though, what with how the heroes slaughter them en-masse, and Old Sun even graphically murders a few, all while the male leads constantly call them bitches. The movie isn't misogynistic, but that scene is a bit weird, and I don't mean in a hopping vampire way. Speaking of, the haunted house segment is great, and quite inventive, taking quite a horror route! It also wraps up spectacularly. The movie's finale is a melodramatic showdown, and the ending is abrupt and depressing, with nothing having really been accomplished, so that's a shame.

The acting is pretty fun, as is the dubbing. First, let's discuss Jackie Chan. As you may know, there are lots of cheapie DVD's and videos that display him front-and-centre as the lead when he's really just a minor player in these early entries in his filmography. Fantasy Mission Force almost comes across like that (though it was made after he'd gained fame), but far from being in only a small role, Jackie's actually a lead in this movie! He's not one of the main main characters, but he gets lots of screentime, and is even the last man standing, getting the whole climactic fight with the big bad to himself.

Jackie isn't the only star in this movie. There's also Brigitte Lin! She's great as Lily, and by far the most entertaining character, which is really saying something! Jimmy Wang Yu does a decent job, but doesn't appear much, nor does he show off much in the way of his martial arts skills. People say Fantasy Mission Force is more a Wang Yu film than a Jackie Chan one, but honestly he appears even less than Jackie!

The soundtrack to Fantasy Mission Force is a kooky one with some fun tracks, from the main theme, to the variations on it, and the song at the start, which is sure to immediately establish the mood to prospective viewers.

Like I said above, the effects are pretty good, from the pyrotechnics, to the sheer amount of extras (even if their Mad Max inspired costumes look cheap), as well as the army of muscle cars in the climax. The fight choreography is decent too. One of the best-handled scenes involves both those points, when the Amazons use their super ribbons to capture the heroes. The effort involved in putting this movie together is very heartening! Or disheartening depending on your point of view.

To finish, Fantasy Mission Force is well deserving if its reputation as one of the craziest films out there, and given some of the stuff I've seen, you know that's a solid recommendation.

Fire Dragon

Secret agent John of the ATA is assigned to destroy the bastard nazis once and for all. To find their leaders Sayiji and Wesley, he must first find the rogue criminal Lily and her gang, who are the only ones who know where the two villains are. Joining John on his adventure are Sandy, a young girl seeking vengeance, and his friend Jesse, leader of an army of ninjas...

Fire Dragon is a fascinating case of 'redubsploitation'. There were many films in China at the time that were cut-and-paste affairs, where an unreleased or unfinished movie would have new footage spliced into it, to either pad out the runtime or to appeal to the Caucasian market. Often these two storylines wouldn't actually connect, besides a few token scenes and maybe a clumsily shared plot point, but in the case of Fire Dragon, it's all the one plot, and the old footage is repurposed to be part of this new story. Because of   and we're seeing things from other characters points of view, giving off a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern effect.

A lot of Fire Dragon's problems are not actually the fault of the movie itself, but rather the English distributors. The sound quality is truly awful! Everything sounds tinny and echo-y, while much of the dialogue is borderline inaudible, due to extremely poor sound balancing, which renders conversations either too soft, or simply unintelligible, to the point where I didn't even know if the girl's name was Sandy or Sally (I'm willing to bet it was neither in the original Chinese). Then there's how the sides of the screen are constantly cut off, due to an off aspect ratio. I'd be curious seeing this in its original form! I wonder if some or even all of these issues were actually present from the start, and it really is an irredeemably awful movie, or if it was in high quality, with great sound and visuals!

Given that this is comprised of two completely different movies that've been haphazardly stitched together, it wouldn't be fair to judge Fire Dragon as its own entity...Buuuut the creators should've thought of that before they edited these two flicks together and released it as a new film, so tough. This film's story is pathetic! John's an uncharismatic 'lead', and the majority of his contribution is watching or interacting with characters from another movie, and consistently being late for just about everything. Events are also incredibly poorly paced, as the Fantasy Mission Force team don't even show up properly until half-an-hour in!

The ending is simply awful! The action itself is ok, but the problem is the body count! Everyone dies! The nazis? Dead, of course, which makes sense. Jesse and his army of ninjas? Dead. Sally/Sandy? Oh, you better believe she's dead! The movie kills off everyone except John, and it makes for a miserable ending! And it comes right after the climax to Fantasy Mission Force, where just about everyone also died! At the least, why'd it kill of Sally?! She was the badass survivor and avenger, and I suppose potential love interest if the film ever decided to go down that route. Her surviving would make plenty of sense! But, nope, she dies before getting her revenge on her rapist (though she does turn Wesley into a sieve, but he was already dying after being double crossed, so the moment is lessened as a result), who guns her down, and she's then never seen or mentioned again. Then, when John is the last man standing, he just walks away, and the movie abruptly stops. *sigh*

To accommodate the new plot, the majority of Fantasy Mission Force has been left on the cutting room floor. The first half hour has a slideshow introduction to the team, with added clips from the haunted house section, and a couple of other random moments. The film completely excises everything about the kidnapped generals, the assembling of the squad, and even Don Wen himself. Perhaps the most confounding thing about this movie is why it didn't poach more footage from Fantasy Mission Force. Fire Dragon clocks in at only 75 minutes long. And that's counting the new movie! There are numerous points where the film would've benefited from using more.

Remember how I mentioned that while he may not be front-and-centre all the time, Jackie Chan is still a legit main character in Fantasy Mission Force, unlike the multitude of other DVD's of his early movies that barely feature him proclaiming him as the star? Well thanks to all the footage it removes, Fire Dragon lands itself squarely in the latter category. That doesn't stop it from trying its darndest to capitalize on the famous martial artist though! He gets four scenes, the first of which is the original movie's wrestling match (albeit pared down), then a meeting with John where he's totally in the same room with Jackie! There's an obvious stand-in used, whose face we never see, all the while the room is covered in posters of the real Jackie Chan. The next scene splices in an ill-fitting establishing shot from much later from his fight with the Amazons, so his stand-in can take on some random mooks, all while never showing his face. The end of the fight re-uses that same establishing shot, too! Finally, a bit later on we see the actual fight Jackie has with the Amazons. In-case you were wondering, yep, that same establishing shot of him scowling and pulling off his hat is used again! At least it actually makes sense now that it's in context.

Something really interesting about Fire Dragon's use of footage is that some of the scenes from Fantasy Mission Force present aren't in that movie's English cut! It's definitely interesting seeing deleted scenes, but I can see why they were removed from the original movie, as they do drag things on a bit.

The effects in Fantasy Mission Force I've of course already discussed. As for the stuff in Fire Dragon, it's actually quite good! I guess the production team must've had a bit of money behind them. The intro where a car is hoisted up into a crane by net, then blown up with a bazooka is pretty spectacular, and the ending is explosive too, reducing a whole set to nothing. I dug the lighting in that final showdown as well, going from night to dawn effectively enough for the z-grade schlock this is.

The fight choreography is pretty decent, I guess. Not great, not that bad either, with somewhat impressive moments here and there. The actors are all ok at best, and terribly dubbed, of course. Two interesting actors are the ones playing the villains, as they actually appear briefly in Fantasy Mission Force! They were barely utilised there, so it's cool seeing them in a more expanded role, and it makes the two movies feel genuinely connected to an extent, even though they aren't. The guy who plays Sayiji (best I can do for you since there's no cast listing in the film) makes for a neat antagonist, coming across both dangerous and twisted.

The direction is sometimes competent, but other times the camera settles on a large steel pipe for literally half a minute, and you wonder if the cameraman fell asleep on the job, or was just incompetent. This is an isolated moment in the scene, too, beginning and ending on that pipe. Someone had to intentionally edit that in!

The score is pretty decent, the poor sound quality notwithstanding (SCREEEEEECH). Probably my favourite track is the 'melancholy' one, but unfortunately it's reused a LOT. It's used well in a lot of the scenes in which it appears, but the fact that we hear it around 6 times over the course of the film may leave you a bit cold to it, and that's especially damaging for the closing minutes, especially considering that's where I feel the best use of the track is.

Two random things to mention before we reach the end are the weird flourishes on Fire Dragon's DVD release. The first is the neat disc illustration which takes the title far too literally (as for where the art may have been nicked from, I'm not sure, but I can tell you it wasn't done for this purpose!), while secondly and more notably is the title card! It's obviously been made with a more recent computer program, with really obviously out-of-place digital effects, and even an American guy saying the title out loud!

As a movie, Fire Dragon is terrible, but it's also quite interesting, and well worth a watch to see a different (albeit poorly handled) take on Fantasy Mission Force. Also, where else can you see a movie where a nazi caveman dwarf jumps out of a birthday cake?! Exactly. That's what I thought...

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