RIC MEYERS: Dragon Dynasty Mutiny!
Poor Cynthia Rothrock. She’s the first gweilo (white devil) woman to become a major star in the golden age of the Hong Kong kung-fu film, then gets relegated to such sad junk as the China O’Brien and Lady Dragon series in America. But for anybody who wants to know what the fuss was about, and those, like me, who want to see Cynthia regain her rightful place in the top echelon of action stars, the two newest Dragon Dynasty DVDs are the ones for you.
Dragon Dynasty is the new home for the many martial art movies the Weinstein Company has been hoarding for years. They’re finally releasing these amazing, literally unmatchable, adventures with enough worthy whistles and beguiling bells to make them worthwhile for even a pioneering kung-fu flick fan such as myself. Still, some of their decisions and missteps are indicative of the seeming disdain they previously displayed for these bogarted milestones.
Take, for example, Above the Law, Rothrocks’ second HK film (following the classic Yes Madam, which also introduced Michelle Yeoh to an awed Chinese audience) and Dragon Dynasty’s ninth DVD release. What, say you, I don’t remember Cynthia Rothrock in that fine, first, 1988, Steven Seagal movie!? Thats because Cynthia was in the 1986 like-named Hong Kong film, which was more generally known as Righting Wrongs, which would have made a much less confusing, more easily ordered, title for this new DVD.
Under any name, this combination of Death Wish and Enter the Dragon adds to its list of firsts, in that its the first major action starring vehicle for the impressive Yuen Baio away from his big brothers, directors, and co-stars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (late of CBS-TVs Martial Law series). But rather than showcase Baio’s sweet, lovable, easy-going nature, director Corey Yuen Kwai (who went on to choreograph the action in Jet Lis’ Kiss of the Dragon, among others) decided to make Righting Wrong a monument to paranoia, fear, brutality and some of the most savage kung-fu ever put on celluloid.
The return of Hong Kong to China’s rule was more than a decade away at the time, but action directors such as Corey were already reflecting their concerns with films that featured corruption as a murderous way of life. Baio plays a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante after his beloved mentor is mown down. Rothrock is the Interpol agent sent to arrest him, while everyone around them is unleashing assassins to kill everyone they can get their hands, knives, guns, construction tools, planes, garrotes, and bombs on.
The fights Corey crams this movie with are boldly conceived, incredibly played, and well worth watching, even studying, repeatedly, which is a good thing since clips of them are shown repeatedly during the interesting Special Feature interviews with Rothrock, Baio, and Canadian kickboxing champ Peter Sugarfoot Cunningham (who co-stars as one of the many killers). The packaging copy isnt through with you at just the confusing title, however. The good news is that the disc also features alternate scenes (although not one Rothrock mentions in her interview) and endings, which aren’t listed on the box. The bad news is that, while the copy maintains that the film is letterboxed widescreen, it ain’t.
Which is a shame, because Dragon Dynasty‘s tenth release, and the next piece of Rothrock proof, is Shanghai Express, which is beautifully restored and letterboxed, capturing every millimeter of the astonishing stunts and scintillating fights director/star Sammo Hung piles on his international cast-of-hundreds. Like Righting Wrongs/Above the Law before it, this DVD features a pandering alternate title for a film that is better known (even on the opening credits) as The Millionaires’ Express.
The special feature interviews with Sammo, co-star Yuen Baio, and Rothrock truly communicate Cynthias journey and the insanity of that era — as well as this particularly overstuffed, schizophrenic production, which nearly emptied the studio coffers and ended Hungs career. American eyes will not really care, or even understand, the many industry in-jokes and wild changes of tone, location, plot, and character. The only thing impossible to ignore is what seemingly suicidal paces Sammo puts himself and his cast through in the sumptuous, lurching, tale of a black sheep trying to make good by luring the title locomotive to his dying tourist town (along with an army of cutthroats) in the late 1800s.
Once you hear about how Sammo hired 75% of all the actors in town (only to eventually edit a whole bunch out), shanghaied every set light in the industry for one scene (causing every other film in production to close for a day), made Yuen barf white bile, had Rothrock go to the bathroom in the bushes, and just generally go nuts to make the Heavens Gate of kung-fu comedies, even rabid genre fans will watch the lovingly restored film in a whole new light.
Now get ready for the segue of the day.
After all Sammo put his crew through, its a wonder they didn’t mutiny like the Naval officers on the good ship Caine! Man, am I good or what (don’t answer that)? As promised/threatened in a previous installment, I’m reviewing Sony Home Entertainments Columbia Classics Collectors Editions as they reach me. This week, happily, comes The Caine Mutiny, producer Stanley Kramer’s lauded adaptation of Herman Wouks Pulitzer Prize winning novel and Broadway play.
I wish I had seen this before the company’s Guns of Navarone Special Edition, because the extras, while good, don’t compare with Guns great ones. While Guns had both modern and at-the-time docs, Caine only features interviews with, and audio commentary from, the same guys: program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center Richard Pena and documentary filmmaker Ken Bowser. Its interesting stuff, but not as riveting as Guns Gregory Peck talking about how crafty Anthony Quinn was at upstaging his co-stars.
Still, theres the film itself. Despite the grumbles of book and play fans about how subplots were eradicated and the captains climatic monologue was curtailed (tightened is a nice way of putting it; gutted is a not-so-nice way), star Humphrey Bogart’s performance cemented his reputation as one of the bravest, least vain, portrayers of fatally flawed heroes ever (see The Treasure of Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place, and The African Queen for further evidence and a really good time).
In short, there’s nothing wrong with Sony’s Collectors Edition of The Caine Mutiny that seeing it before the Collectors Edition of The Guns of Navarone wouldn’t cure.
In fact, its been such an exciting DVD-watching week, I only have one thing to say to Sony and Dragon Dynasty: more! More!