Operation Golden Phoenix (1994)

Jalal Merhi made a good movie!

I’ll give it a second to let that sink in. Yes, the charisma supermassive-black-hole, the man with no appreciable talents in front of or behind the camera, who started making movies because he liked martial arts and wanted to be a star and obviously he was never getting hired by mainstream productions, the man who managed once to be out-acted by Billy Blanks (!) and whose work is stuffed to the brim with sexism so rotten it’ll make your eyes water, made one good movie.

And the weird thing is, it’s by far his least well-known. Only available on VHS (I think), almost never shown on TV, my copy is recorded from obscure British cable channel “Movies 4 Men”. It co-stars ISCFC Hall of Famer Loren Avedon, James “David Lo Pan off of Big Trouble In Little China” Hong, and a delightfully wacky bunch of minor actors; has some great filming locations and a plot that just rips along. I mean, the last few things on this list are what you’d normally expect from any half-decent movie, but they’re far from being a given.

Merhi and Avedon are Mark Assante and Ivan Jones, agents for some government agency or other, and I think they’ve just rescued a bunch of artefacts from somewhere. If there’s anyone who reads this review and goes “I didn’t like it because he couldn’t remember where they rescued the stuff from at the beginning” then I will eat my hat.

Unfortunately, Avedon is bad to the bone, and has thrown in his lot with international bad guy Mr Chang (Hong). There’s a couple of amulets which, when re-united, are a map to a fabulous haul of treasure, and now the baddies have one of them. They blow up the rest of the stuff and blame it on Assante, so he’s on the run with the cops in hot-ish pursuit and the bad guys trying to engineer it so that he goes and steals the second amulet. His old buddy the Professor has a wife who’s cheating on him with Chang, too, so there’s plenty of people milling about Assante who want to do him ill.

That amulet is in Lebanon, so off we go to the actual Beirut to do some filming – presumably helped by Merhi’s Lebanese parentage. And it’s a fantastic spot to film, too, so kudos to them for getting permission. But Assante has to get a fake passport in order to fly, and it made me nostalgic for the olden days as he goes to a guy with papers and tweezers to put the photograph in place and all that. Damn you, terrorism, for spoiling our fun!

The beautiful Princess Tara has the other amulet, and Assante must try and infiltrate her household in order to steal it – but don’t worry, he picks the dumbest way possible (I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself, should you choose to watch it). More twists and turns! Him going back to the Princess for help and getting a sidekick, the Princess’s ass-kicking sister Angelica! Fight scenes around ancient ruins! The vague idea that Jones is actually sort of a good guy! For about two scenes before the movie forgets and just makes him bad again!

What I enjoyed most about “Operation Golden Phoenix” (other than the fact there’s no golden phoenix in it) is how it never slows down enough to let you think about how daft it all is. He got permission to film in Beirut so knocked up a bit of script that gave him a reason to go there (well, the script was provided by long-time associate J Stephen Maunder, but you get the idea). Avedon probably improvised the “maybe he’s not that bad” stuff, because it makes zero sense in the wider context of things and he’s got form as an actor who likes to go into business for himself. The reveal of how they manage to match up the pendants to find the treasure has attracted some real anger from other reviewers, but…I guess my standards are lower, because it just washed over me. Like, I expect 1993 computers to be able to do wacky stuff like that to move the plot along.

The fight scenes are awful, because Merhi liked filming himself more than just about anything, and he’s in almost all of them. He often just flies through the air, visibly not making contact with anything, and we’re supposed to believe the person flying backwards in the next shot was affected by that “kick”. Avedon’s stuff is fine, but then he’s a professional.

I was very surprised at how much work he gave the women in this – he doesn’t give himself any love scenes, but both main Princesses are very strong characters. Okay, it’s not perfect, but we can’t have everything.

I don’t want to praise it too much. A lot of it is, admittedly, Merhi stood around delivering terrible lines in the worst way possible (he really is among the least able people to have ever called themselves “actor”), and it makes no sense if you think about it for more than a tenth of a second. But it’s rarely boring and has a great villainous turn from Avedon, so I’m happy to call this the best Merhi movie ever, and if you’re desperate to see one example of the man’s work, make it this one.

Rating: thumbs up

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