An affable ship’s cook departs an oil tanker only moments before the crew find their shipment of crude oil has been stolen and replaced with seawater! Besides being a culinary genius, Max (Gert Fröbe) is also a master criminal leading a gang of hijackers employed by an elusive boss known as “The Regent.” When one of Max’s men blackmails him for a larger cut of the profits, he has a sniper assassinate him at the airport. However, the murdered man whispers something to his fellow passenger, Doctor Justice (John Phillip Law), a crusading physician with the World Health Organization and also a swimming champion, karate expert, philosopher, humanitarian and all-round good egg. Fearful the good doctor knows too much, Max turns to his ambitious right-hand man Eric Sachs (Hugo Blanco). Eric persuades his beautiful girlfriend Karen (Nathalie Delon) to lure Justice into a trap, but is promptly ambushed when he also blackmails Max for more money. Aided by a remorseful Karen, Doctor Justice escapes and thereafter sets out to foil Max’s next hijack at sea. He also notices the villain bears an uncanny resemblance to one Georges Orwall (also Fröbe), a distinguished colleague at the W.H.O. with a sinister theory about curbing the population of the Third World.
Based on the popular French comic book co-created by writer Jean Ollivier and artist Carlo Marcello, Doctor Justice (or Docteur Justice to use the French spelling) is a glossy, supersized adventure mounting a belated European rival to James Bond. As incarnated by the athletic and personable John Phillip Law, veteran of such classic comic book capers writ large as Barbarella (1967) and Danger: Diabolik (1968), the two-fisted physician is somewhat similar to American pulp hero Doc Savage, whose adventures also reached the big screen that same year in Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975). Both heroes combine intellectual acuity with supreme physical fitness and a steadfastly philanthropic philosophy. Having recently returned from treating sick kids in Africa, Doctor Justice challenges Orwall (whose name might be a jokey reference to an altogether more socially responsible doomsayer: novelist George Orwell) on his belief that Third World overpopulation threatens our global wellbeing. Mind you, Justice’s own belief that the planet’s bountiful resources will provide for everyone is pretty naive in itself, provided you take the film seriously. Despite tapping anxieties wrought by the energy crisis of the 1970s, the treatment is far from deep.
Christian-Jaque was an acclaimed filmmaker during the Thirties and Forties, but after classic swashbucklers like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and The Black Tulip (1964) with Alain Delon his career devolved into a string of dispiriting James Bond imitations, although his rollicking comedy western Les petroleuses a.k.a. The Legend of Frenchie King (1971) is a fun pairing of sex kittens Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale. Doctor Justice was his penultimate film, after which he stuck largely to making miniseries for television until his death in 1994. Here he seems fatally torn between the grittier adventure films of the Seventies and the more fantastical trappings of the super-spy cycle. His whip pans, tilted angles and tacky zooms strive for that groovy comic book vibe, but the dour Seventies visuals lack the sparkle of vintage Eurospy.
The film goes out of its way to seem light and frothy. So much so, it practically evaporates before our eyes. Cheesy, yes, but engaging in an endearingly dated way. Doctor Justice is the sort of hero we don’t see in movies anymore, in an era where even Bond has become a troubled soul. Justice can debate global geo-politics and trade flirty banter with comely Karen in the same breath and remains unflappable and upbeat through even the direst situations. John Phillip Law sparks well off Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe who excels in his dual roles but mostly as the avuncular Max who whips up huge gourmet meals for henchmen and enemies alike! Elsewhere, Nathalie Delon has a thankless task pouting sexily on the sidelines while Euro horror fans may be disappointed Paul Naschy a.k.a. Jacinto Molina, Spain’s number one horror icon, is not given much to do as one of Max’s henchmen. While the plot degenerates into a repetitive series of car chases, punchups and cat and mouse games, the action is consistently well-staged including some martial arts fights that may be slow by Hong Kong standards but are nicely choreographed. Also the finale is quite suspenseful with Justice trapped inside a flooding dungeon, though some might be surprised the villains fate is so low-key. Pierre Porte and Ángel Arteaga supply a punchy score, part orchestral, part funk rock with a little bossa nova thrown in.