Film Review: The Wrecking Crew (1968)

Release Date: December 25th, 1968 (Canada)
Directed by: Phil Karlson
Written by: William McGivern
Based on: The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton
Music by: Hugo Montenegro
Cast: Dean Martin, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, Nigel Green, Tina Louise, Wilhelm von Homburg (uncredited), Chuck Norris (uncredited)

Meadway-Claude Productions, Columbia Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“So this is the place I was gonna get shot in the back. Kind of a stylish pad to take off from.” – Matt Helm

I’ve arrived at the fourth and final Matt Helm film and while the Dean Martin spy comedies have been enjoyable, this one showed me that maybe they had already run out of steam.

That’s not to say that this one wasn’t enjoyable, it was, but it was the weakest in the series and just felt like everyone involved was simply running through the motions and the entire production had become a paint-by-numbers affair.

Sure, Martin is still charming and suave and the women are beautiful. But this really felt like they were dialing it in, trying to get one last glass of milk out of the cow.

However, if they did make a fifth film, I’d still watch it. It’s hard not to like Dean Martin in this role, as it’s tailor made for him and who the hell doesn’t like Dean Martin?

One of the strong points in this film was the villain, who was played by Nigel Green, who is most known for his roles in classic horror films.

This is also sort of bittersweet in that it was Sharon Tate’s last movie before she was murdered by the Manson Family in 1969. I enjoyed her in this but I think that she hadn’t reached her full potential and it’s hard to say whether or not she would’ve grown into a real film star that could’ve carried a production on her own.

The film also featured a bunch of boxers, wrestlers and martial artists, all of whom were uncredited for their small roles. However, it’s worth mentioning that Bruce Lee worked on the film, behind the scenes, and this was also Chuck Norris’ first film, even though he’s so far under the radar that I didn’t even notice him.

Another interesting thing about this movie is that it was directed by the same guy who did the first Matt Helm picture, Phil Karlson. He’s a director mostly known for his fine noir movies and while I enjoy his work in the Matt Helm series, it doesn’t quite live up to the movies he did before them.

The Wrecking Crew was an okay finale to the Matt Helm film series. It could’ve tried a little bit harder and gave fans something better but in the end, it did get this far and that’s something.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: The SilencersMurderers’ Row and The Ambushers: the other Matt Helm films.

Film Review: The Way of the Dragon (1972)

Also known as: Fury of the Dragon (European English title), Revenge of the Dragon (US cable TV title), Return of the Dragon (US dubbed version)
Release Date: June 1st, 1972 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Bruce Lee
Written by: Bruce Lee
Music by: Joseph Ko
Cast: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Paul Wei, Tony Liu, Unicorn Chan, Chuck Norris, Malisa Longo, Robert Wall, Hwang In-shik, Jon T. Benn 

Golden Harvest Films, Concord Productions, 99 Minutes, 133 Minutes (extended cut), 86 Minutes (censored cut)

Review:

“Let him know. If I ever see him here again… he won’t leave alive!” – Tang Lung

While this is my least favorite of the trilogy of martial arts films that Bruce Lee made before the legendary Enter the Dragon, this one does have the best finale of the three, as it pits Bruce Lee against Chuck Norris and then shows him kick the f’n shit out a bunch of gangsters.

The story takes place in what was modern 1970s Rome. Lee and his family’s restaurant is terrorized by local mafiosos, so he takes it upon himself to beat them all to a bloody pulp for 99 minutes.

The plot is fairly weak and generic but I like most of the characters from Lee’s family to the evil mob boss to Chuck Norris’ Colt.

If one were to pull the action sequences from this film, it’d be dreadfully dull. However, the action and Lee’s presence keep the film afloat.

In fact, the fight choreography in this movie is stunning but that should probably go without saying, as Lee never disappointed in that regard. Adding Chuck Norris to the mix only maximizes the awesome action sequences.

Ultimately, this is a pretty fun movie to watch for its high points but it still pales in comparison to Enter the Dragon, which followed.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: the other Bruce Lee martial arts films of the ’70s.

Film Review: Fist of Fury (1972)

Also known as: The Chinese Connection (alternate), Ching Wu School (Canada), Tekken (Japan)
Release Date: March 22nd, 1972 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Lo Wei
Written by: Lo Wei
Music by: Joseph Koo
Cast: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien, Jackie Chan (cameo)

Golden Harvest, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Have pity? Who had pity for Huo Yuan-Chia?” – Chen

Fist of Fury, also known as The Chinese Connection, is the second major role that Bruce Lee had. This quickly followed his smash hit The Big Boss and it was just the second in a string of films pumped out to take advantage of his immense star power, at the time.

While his films were produced and released quickly, they still have a real level of quality to them, especially in comparison to the other Hong Kong kung fu films of the day.

In this movie, we meet Bruce Lee’s Chen as he arrives home just in time to witness the end of his teacher’s funeral. We learn that his teacher was murdered and there’s a conspiracy afoot. His school is then harassed and bullied by a rival school of Japanese karate students. Chen can’t stand down, even though his school and his new teacher demand peace and pacifism. What results, is Lee being a total f’n badass and taking on all comers but his actions also come with consequences and threatens those he cares for. It’s a story about revenge and how that path can lead to worse outcomes but it is also about standing up for oneself.

Lee was excellent and even though he essentially just felt like Bruce Lee in every role, he still owns it and has a presence that shines like a bright beacon. Lee was an exceptional talent and man, does it really show in this film. Not that it doesn’t in others but I don’t think people can really understand or appreciate the phenomenon that was Bruce Lee without actually watching him come alive in a motion picture.

Fist of Fury has some fantastic cinematography and fight choreography that work hand-in-hand. The sequence where Chen confronts the Japanese school and challenges them one-on-about two dozen, is glorious. Just after that, the big battle between the Japanese and Chinese schools is also a perfectly choreographed rumble of epic proportions.

Lee was a strong influence on those he touched and I feel like that rubbed off on the filmmakers he worked with. His fluid motions and exacting execution seems to translate to the filmmakers themselves, as his pictures have the same level of quality and perfection that Lee personally strived for. Sure, they were pictures limited by budget and resources but there isn’t really anything better that came out of Hong Kong in the 1970s and this isn’t a knock against other kung fu films, as many of the ones without Lee are also great pieces of filmmaking. Lee’s films just exist on a pedestal that is very real and not just some mythical structure built by legend and held together with nostalgia.

Fist of Fury isn’t Lee’s best picture but it is damn good. Then again, everything Lee did that came out before his death was solid gold.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: The Big Boss (1971)

Also known as: Fists of Fury (USA)
Release Date: October 3rd, 1971 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Lo Wei
Written by: Bruce Lee, Lo Wei
Music by: Wang Fu-ling
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien, Nora Miao

Golden Harvest, 110 Minutes

thebigbossReview:

The Big Boss, mistakenly released as Fists of Fury in the United States, was the first starring vehicle for Bruce Lee. It helped launch him into superstardom and it solidified Hong Kong cinema as a new international force.

In this film, we see Lee’s Cheng Chao-an come to a small village and work at an ice factory with his cousins. We soon find out that the ice factory is a front for drug running. Chao-an’s fiery cousin Hsu Chien (played by James Tien) wants to know what the hell is going on and confronts the big boss. Hsu and some of his friends are murdered after a big kung fu brawl. Things get even more out of hand, which causes Chao-an to break a vow of non-violence and to fight back.

The film is well-paced and the story is actually pretty interesting and well put together, despite it being a fairly mundane situation that any filmgoer has seen play out a hundred times over. Bruce Lee just adds legitimacy to the picture, even if it is really his first. His charm and charisma are hard to deny and they help propel the very basic plot into a film better than it should be.

Unlike other Hong Kong kung fu movies, Bruce Lee doesn’t rely on mystical powers and supernatural stuff, he keeps his films grounded in reality and that realism brings with it a certain kind of grit missing in the genre of the time. The Big Boss feels completely plausible. It is a real and authentic movie and Lee’s portrayal of his philosophy and mastery of his art is genuine.

The Big Boss is a damn good Hong Kong kung fu classic. To be honest, I think I prefer it to Lee’s other films, even the more popular Enter The Dragon.

Rating: 9/10