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  Dragon Force Twice as many Bruces, twice as much action!
Year: 1982
Director: Michael Mak
Stars: Bruce Baron, Bruce Li, Tang Kei-Chan, Si Ming, Tong Tin-Hei, Lau Wei-Man, Tong Kam-Tong, Olivia Cheng, Mandy Moore, James Barrett, Jovy Coudrey, Randy Channell, San Sin, Sam Sorono, Seon Blake
Genre: Action, Martial Arts, Trash, Weirdo, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: A mysterious plane crash wipes out the Royal family of Mongrovia leaving sole survivor Princess Rawleen (Mandy Moore, who is neither the star of This Is Us nor the choreographer for La La Land) heir to the throne. Since Mongrovia is the source of a precious ore vital to the nuclear arms race the Soviet Union takes action. Portly General Marushka (James Barrett) sends a cadre of crimson-clad ninja warriors to kidnap the Princess from the palatial mansion she is staying at with college friend Elana Mann (Olivia Cheng) and her idiot brother Richard (Lau Wei-Man) - a failed stand-up comedian whose wisecracks are endless and frankly indecipherable - along with sultry but treacherous secretary Eva (Jovy Coudrey). The call to rescue Rawleen goes to surly secret agent Jack Sargeant (Bruce Baron) who breaks off fondling bikini babes at a private pool to fly to Hong Kong. Where, after dallying with a wacky gadget master, he endures a grueling martial arts test to enlist the aid of Dragon Force, an elite squad of kung fu experts, for a daring rescue raid.

American actor Bruce Baron was among a handful of white martial arts performers that carved a niche for themselves in Hong Kong cinema. Mostly in Godfrey Ho schlock though also the odd classy outing like Tsui Hark's critically acclaimed Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980), Wong Jing's glossy Shaw Brothers caper Winner Takes All (1982), Teddy Robin's sci-fi blockbuster Legend of Wisely (1987) and lavish crime lord biography Lord of East China Seas (1993). He also graced the odd Italian (e.g. Raiders of Atlantis (1983), Codename: Wild Geese (1984)) and Fillipino B-movie and even landed a minor role on Eighties soap opera Dallas in an episode set in Hong Kong.

Opening with a bare-torsoed, sweat-sheened Jack Sargeant in the midst of a campy training montage, Dragon Force has Bruce Baron front and center. Chiefly because director Michael Mak crafted his feature debut to look as close to an American production as possible, employing cast, crew and writers with either western-sounding names or actual Americans. The gamble paid off as Dragon Force was a financial success around the world. The film launched Michael, along with his renowned brother Johnny Mak, as one of the most innovative, successful and influential forces in Hong Kong cinema. He went on to direct a slew of comedies and teen movies along with Long Arm of the Law II (1987), a sequel to Johnny's trailblazing crime thriller, acclaimed drama Moonlight Whispers (1988) co-directing with David Lai, infamous erotic opus Sex & Zen (1991) (probably his most internationally successful film) and excellent wu xia fantasy Butterfly and Sword (1992), but has been A.W.O.L. since 2001's ropey Asian Charlie's Angels.

Much as the earlier, conceptually similar Golden Harvest production Stoner (1974) featured former 007 George Lazenby, Dragon Force draws part of its inspiration from the James Bond films. The Roger Moore era in particular. Lurching from one loopy, borderline stream of consciousness scene to another, the barely coherent plot starts out relatively grounded but quickly grows more pulpy and fantastical. Mak throws in ninjas in centipede formation, sexy karate ladies in short judo robes, wacky talking puppets, a scene where a live snake is used to cure a poisoned Jack (who pulls a goofy face then faints) and has Chinese mystics shave Princess Rawleen bald and paint her naked body with Taoist symbols then use acupuncture to turn her into a mind-controlled zombie. Along the way there is sleazy sex and very silly comedy including gags that play weirdly racist given this is a Chinese production. Among them the flour company that doubles as Dragon Force's secret hideout named 'Good Fu-King Flour' and an inventor named Ah Chu (Tang Kei-Chan) who tells Jack he also designs gadgets for "that Double-0 fella."

While toothy Bruce Baron has the physique of an action hero and can clearly handle himself, he lacks charisma. His Jack Sargeant comes across like an ill-tempered doofus, griping with allies even as he stumbles from one mess into another, getting innocent people killed. Yet somehow lands a love interest in Elana. So it is just as well that a third of the way into its plot Dragon Force abruptly sidelines Jack and wheels out the film's real hero Dai Lung played by Bruce Li. Ho Tsung-Tao, to use his real name, was the preeminent Bruce Lee impersonator in Hong Kong exploitation cinema despite his own ambivalent feelings about the matter. He parlayed his mild resemblance to the iconic kung fu star into a string of kung fu films from relatively sober biographies like Dragon Story (1974) and Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth (1977) to increasingly outlandish efforts such as Bruce Lee in New Guinea (1978). Prior to Dragon Force, which proved his final film, Tsung-Tao defied critics drawing respectable reviews for his directorial effort The Chinese Stuntman (1981). Afterwards he withdrew from the film industry to become a P.E. teacher at Taipei's Ping Chung University.

Needless to say Li/Tsung Tao proves the coolest character in the film, leader of the titular Dragon Force that also includes macho moustachioed Kamikashi (Tong Kam-Tong), slinky Soo-Lim (Si Ming) - who later poses as a lounge singer at a disco in order to seduce Marushka's evil henchman in a scene seemingly designed to showcase actress Si Ming's singing voice (the groovy soundtrack by famed HK music producer Chris Babida is actually pretty fun) - and Monk (San Sin). Who conveniently happens to be a monk. As the most skilled fighter Bruce Li takes up most of the screen time in the second half, showcasing his amazingly agile spin-kicks. For all its attempts to seem like an American film there is no mistaking the film's frenetic action, wild pacing and eccentric flourishes (towards the Enter the Dragon-inspired finale the Russian bad guys actually send Dragon Force an engraved invitation to their secret hideout!) as anything but pure Hong Kong schlock. And god bless it.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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