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  Supermen Against the Orient Smash 'em, punch 'em, bash 'em, grind 'em under
Year: 1974
Director: Bitto Albertini, Kuei Chi-hung
Stars: Robert Malcolm, Antonio Cantafora, Sal Borgese, Lo Lieh, Shih Szu, Tung Lam, Jacques Dufhilo, Alberto Farnese, Isabella Biagini, Mars, Kong Ling, Lam Fung, Lin Wen-Wei, Lau Wai-Ling, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chan Ho
Genre: Comedy, Action, Martial Arts, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: By the mid-Seventies, Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studios became a global cinematic force to be reckoned with. They began flexing their muscles with an array of showy international co-productions ranging from Hammer horror (Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)) to German sex comedy (Enter the Seven Virgins (1974)). Italy came calling with Crash! Che Botte Strippo Strappo Stroppio! Or Supermen Against the Orient as it's known in English. When triad cocaine smugglers kidnap a group of F.B.I. agents, the U.S. government drag moustachioed hero Robert Wallace (Robert Malcolm) away from his wedding and send him to Bangkok. Whereupon his comely contact Suzy (Shih Szu, from Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) informs him he must head to Hong Kong at once. So why did we waste eight minutes of screen time in Thailand?

Upon finally reaching HK, Wallace is reunited with amiable rogues Max (Antonio Cantafora) and Jerry (Sal Borgese, who like Harpo Marx never speaks) at a martial arts tournament where kung fu champ Tang (Lo Lieh) demonstrates his lethal skills. Tricking Wallace into the ring, the pair laugh uproariously while Tang beats the shit out of their buddy. He awakens in hospital where Tang apologizes profusely then offers to help Wallace bring down the drug traffickers, as does Suzy whose brother it transpires is among the captive men. The jittery American consulate (Jacques Dufhilo, who makes Jerry Lewis look restrained) endows Wallace with the latest crime-fighting gadget: bright red bullet-proof superhero costumes! However, Max and Jerry agree to help only if Wallace allows them to steal a multimillion dollar fortune from the American embassy.

One of the forgotten Euro film franchises, the Supermen movies spanned three decades and were popular in their day. Gianfranco Parolini kicked off the series with Three Fantastic Supermen (1967), a natural progression from his many outlandish spy movies, while writer-director Bitto Albertini took over from the third instalment Three Supermen in Tokyo (1968). Albertini was one of those Italian cinematic warhorses who seem to have worked their way through every job in the film industry. He came to specialize in action-comedy romps heavy on slapstick stunts, including bogus sequels like Starcrash 2: Escape from Galaxy 3 (1981) and Return of Shanghai Joe (1975). Albertini also dabbled in sexploitation, as with The New Black Emmanuelle (1976), and combined his two areas of expertise in Three Supermen in the Jungle (1970) which memorably features Femi Benussi as a topless jungle girl.

In Albertini's hands, Supermen Against the Orient proves a lively, if meandering romp whose episodic plot takes in kung fu training (punching hot coals!), Peking Opera-styled disco and outlandish superhero antics. Our bullet-proof heroes baffle bad guys by leaping and laughing bizarrely whilst being shot at. Like the James Bond films, this is part-travelogue with plenty of sequences shot in lush tourist spots to entice Euro audiences. One amusing moment has Wallace spoof James Bond's attempt at an Oriental disguise in You Only Live Twice (1967). When he walks down the street everyone can tell he is an American. It's a typically broad Italian comedy, with digs at American pride and President Richard Nixon in particular, while the performers' likeability compensates for the series' reoccurring problem in that the Supermen frequently come across as infantile jerks. Max and Jerry are overgrown kids. They like a good fight, pretty girls and lots of money and care not a hoot for the law, innocent bystanders or indeed, common sense. The memorably silly theme song underlines their attitude: "Smash 'em, punch 'em, bash 'em, grind 'em under!" Nevertheless, the film is respectful towards Chinese culture and avoids the crass tourist elements that marred, say, Rush Hour 2 (2001).

The martial arts action is well staged, complemented by Albertini's use of scope and slow-motion. Interestingly the film was co-directed by Kuei Chi-hung, better known for sleazy horror films like Killer Snakes (1974) and The Boxer's Omen (1983) and not so hot with humour, as his risible Hex versus Witchcraft (1980) can attest. Of the Italian stars, the ever-silent Sal Borgese proves the most gifted acrobat. Borgese was the only cast member who stuck with the series, from its beginnings in 1967 to the "official" end to the series, Three Supermen vs. the Godfather (1979) and its soft-core sexploitation "comeback" with Three Supermen in Santo Domingo (1986), where he was noticeably greyer but no less athletic. Borgese's clownish character dynamically tears through Hong Kong traffic during rush hour, disguises himself as the world's ugliest air stewardess and steals a kiss from Shih Szu during their comedic kung fu bout.

Shih Szu looks great in black satin cape and figure-hugging red lycra. Lo Lieh, not so much. Lieh was Hong Kong cinema's first international superstar, thanks to Shaw Bros' grindhouse favourite Five Fingers of Death (1969), though his moment in the sun proved short-lived once Bruce Lee came along. Lee may have become an icon, but Lieh had the more varied career and arguably more fun. His days as a leading man climaxed with the East meets Spaghetti Western The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974), after which he became a magnificent villain in Shaw horror fare including Black Magic Part 2: Revenge of the Zombies (1976) and Human Skin Lanterns (1982), then showed off his comedic talents in an array of wacky supporting roles - notably in Buddha's Palm (1982), Little Dragon Maiden (1983) and Family Light Affair (1984). He blends in with the Three Stooges styled antics of his Italian co-stars quite well. Supermen Against the Orient was a smash hit in Italy and Hong Kong, where it proved quite influential and spawned the rip-off Bruce Lee Against Supermen (1975) and Shaw Brothers' next sequel: Amazons and Supermen (1975) directed by sci-fi trash maestro Alfonso Brescia and starring the versatile Yueh Hua.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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