Murder In The Orient (1974)

Sometimes the obscurest movies pop up in the unlikeliest places. One of those 4-movie DVD sets that were given away with cheap DVD players back in the day contains “Kill Cruise”, a completely forgotten Patsy Kensit / Elizabeth Hurley / Jurgen Prochnow movie from 1990; “Zig Zag”, which is like twentieth on the list of movies with exactly that title, and is a Russian-made, Russian-acted (just in English) thriller from 1999; “Massacre”, David Heavener’s first movie which we covered years ago; and this.

 

Ronald Marchini has long been a favourite of the ISCFC, a legit martial artist who for a time acted, making gems like “Omega Cop”, “Karate Cop” and “Jungle Wolf”. For years, we’ve been trying to track down his first movie, but it wasn’t even available from less legal online sources. When I discovered that new ISCFC favourite Leo Fong also debuted in the same movie (!), I tried again, and happened upon this terribly obscure box set. One excited trip to eBay later, and here we are!

It feels like this movie predates the trend of giving legit martial arts champions their own movies. Chuck Norris’ first starring role was in 1977 (he’d been in a few movies in bit parts and villain roles before that, admittedly) and all the rest of the champion-fighters-turned-actors didn’t show up til the 80s. There’s a martial arts documentary, produced by Elvis Presley, from 1973 called “The New Gladiators” which featured Marchini and perhaps sparked interest in putting him in front of the camera. No, I’m not going to research it and find a proper answer! Baseless supposition is this site’s bread and butter!

 

“Murder In The Orient” was originally known as “Manila Gold”, which is a much better name, even if it sounds more like a strain of weed than a movie. It appears that the trend of changing names to get money meant for a more big-budget production is older than I thought, as there was an A-lister stuffed version of “Murder On The Orient Express”

 

Paul Martelli (Marchini) is a playboy, caught in the movie’s opening scene in bed with a married woman. As he’s escaping the scene in his sweet 70s ride, another woman, being chased by some mean hombres, hops into his car and asks for his help. This is also a central plot point to “No Retreat, No Surrender 4”, featuring ISCFC Hall of Famers Loren Avedon and Sherrie Rose, and respect to those guys who’ll just help whatever random hottie happens to hop into their car.

The plot, which is thin even in relation to other paper-thin things, involves gold buried by Japanese soldiers during WW2, and the Filipino government wanting it back.  The woman doesn’t survive very long, but she gives Paul a piece of a map, or something – the map is on two different ceremonial swords, which need to be put together in order to show the location of the gold.

 

Chasing the gold is a gang, led by King Cobra, and his main enforcer who goes by the name of Kang The Butcher; plus a couple of excellent goons. They’re trying to track down the map, and when they kill the woman, this brings her brother Lao Tzu (Fong) into the plot, who’s living in another country as a karate instructor. He comes seeking revenge, and he even gets into a fight with Paul (“They Live” style) before he realizes they’re both on the same side, Paul having been recruited by the Filipino government to track down the gold in the meantime. There’s fights, action, lots of high-quality blood squibs when people get shot, everything the discerning fight-movie fan will want.

 

I like that Paul keeps getting distracted by women and then smashed over the head, as it reminds me of one of my favourite old TV shows, “Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased)”. He gets a sweet beach scene with his love interest, wearing matching (and genuinely hideous) beach outfits, too, and shows that…well, let’s say he was as good an actor in his first movie as he was in his last. That sort of counts as a compliment, right?

Leo Fong is a different kettle of fish altogether. He was already 46 years old when this, his debut, came out, and had been a minister, a professional boxer, been friends with Bruce Lee, been featured several times in “Black Belt” magazine, and had developed his own style of martial arts (he and Marchini would go on to write a book together). I imagine he’s a fascinating guy, and friend of ISCFC Len Kabasinski hired him to act in his most recent movie, “Challenge of the Five Gauntlets”, at age 90. Both he and Marchini appear to be having some sort of secret competition to see who can do the most wooden line reading, but they’re both fine, honestly. Who cares about wooden acting when you’ve got an entire movie stuffed with the sweetest 70s fashions and wildly overacting goons?

 

It’s cheaply made and underlit, even by the standards of the time, and it’s legitimately been thrown on the garbage heap of history by even martial arts movie afficionados. But thanks to the presence of two legends of our particular corner of the internet, we picked it up and present it to you now.

 

The DVD clearly used a very poor quality print of the movie, as it’s full of scratches and jarring edits (which may, I admit, have been present in even the best print) and the dialogue is completely inaudible at times. But, it just adds to that grindhouse flavour, and at 74 minutes, you’ve got no time to get bored.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Advertisements

Blood Street (1988)

Friend of ISCFC Len Kabasinski, low-budget movie auteur par excellence, has a new release coming out on Christmas day, called “Challenge of the Five Gauntlets” (if you get on his Patreon, $2 a month, you’ll be able to watch it on the day of release). It sounds amazing, and one of his co-stars in that movie is a fellow by the name of Leo Fong.

Fong is a name I’ve been aware of for some time, as he’s made at least one bad movie classic, “Low Blow”. Born in China in 1928, moved to the US in the early 30s, became an amateur boxer, was allegedly a friend of Bruce Lee, then in his mid 40s, decided to get into the movie business. His first movie was also the first movie of a beloved ISCFC figure, Ron Marchini (“Omega Cop”, “Karate Cop”), and it looks like he spent a few years appearing in small roles in other Eastern-made movies and even occasionally writing them, before his first starring role in a Western movie, 1984’s “Killpoint”. Don’t worry, dear reader, after this incredibly strong first showing we’ll definitely be doing a season of Leo Fong movies!

Anyway, it’s a period from 1986’s “Low Blow” to 1993’s “Showdown” that appears to be prime Fong – not only did he star in everything, he had writing credits, producing credits, and even a few directing credits (including some movies he didn’t star in, which is something of a wasted opportunity). He’s worked with Loren Avedon and Cynthia Rothrock as well as Marchini and Kabasinski, and after one movie we’re hooked!

This is a minor entry in our “The Future Already Happened” review series, being released in 1988 but set in the heady far-off days of 1990, by which time San Fransisco will have become a drug-riddled hellhole. The opening text crawl is perhaps the most magnificently literal thing I’ve ever read, as it tells us who the characters are going to be, who’s fighting who, where it’s set and what the first scene is going to contain. I admire a movie that can leave you off guard and confused before it’s even started!

Feels like they just made up the last name with whatever spare letters they had lying around

There are two gangs of drug dealers. One of them is led by “some Italian guy” (as the movie’s official IMDB synopsis states!), whose character name is actually MacDonald; he’s got a couple of lieutenants, two genuine That Guy actors (Stack Pierce and Chuck Jeffreys, whose names you won’t recognise but whose faces you definitely will) and plenty of goons. The other gang is led by Richard Norton, legendary screen martial artist who’s been in plenty of Cynthia Rothrock movies and whose career has ranged as far as “ABBA: The Movie” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Both of these groups of people are vicious monsters.

Oh, in one scene you see Richard Norton spar with a guy in a ring, as if he told the director “you know I’m a really good fighter, right? Would you not like me to do at least some martial arts?” He’s even in charge of what looks like an underground fighting league! But doesn’t fight in it, and we only see the fight league in the background of one scene!

Leo Fong is a private eye, the same character as in “Low Blow” apparently, but I’m pretty sure I’m not missing too much character continuity. The one amusing thing about him is, unlike most other movie heroes, he doesn’t wait to be hit or attacked by villains before beating the crap out of them. Like a taciturn Han Solo. He enters the story when MacDonald’s wife Vanna (Playboy playmate Kimberley Paige) asks him to find her apparently missing husband, but she’s got no money so she shows him her boobs and offers to pay him in sex (he refuses, but takes the case anyway).

It’s not so much that “Blood Street” has any one thing which identifies it as a so-bad-it’s-good classic, it’s just got lots of little things. Like the opening crawl. Or the crime scenes, which Fong just casually walks into even though he’s not a cop, passing the time of day with the two cops there and then leaving again. The crappy mics they used, which pick up so much background noise you can barely hear the dialogue. The way the same room, with it’s ugly artexed walls, stands in for like four or five different scenes. Fong’s backup team, made up of an insanely overdressed lawyer and an old-timey bodybuilder with a weird moustache. How Fong just walks up to people and asks to buy a kilo of heroin, like you or I would talk about the weather.

I would like to talk about how I think “Blood Street” was originally filmed as two different movies, or two sequels to “Low Blow”, but that idea was abandoned halfway through and all the ideas they had were just shoved into one movie. The plot moves at a genuinely insane pace, with people shot and characters showing up and then disappearing again and Fong moving from one place to another with nothing but the slightest whisper of an explanation as to why he’s now somewhere entirely different, kicking the ass of a whole new group of people (his sudden departure to and equally sudden return from Mexico is perhaps the classic example of this). The fight league, which could have been a whole movie in lesser hands, is briefly alluded to, shown for a few seconds then completely ignored.

My favourite part of the entire movie, though, is a little after half-way, when we see Fong teaching a bunch of teenagers some martial arts. Isn’t he a private eye, not a teacher? Never mind that. Then his daughter walks in, who has never been seen or hinted at previously, with her new boyfriend, who Fong approves of thanks to his chaste and conservative nature. Then, in the next scene, the two of them are out on a date and are murdered by some goons we’ve never met before! Fong is seen cradling his daughter and crying, but like three or four minutes later he’s back to his normal self, even coming out with a few wisecracks. What? It’s like if the entire plot of the movie “Taken” was actually just five minutes in the middle of a movie about a different mystery, and is a genuinely bizarre choice.

But then! We see him dialling a phone, and they keep every second of him doing that, being kept on hold, etc. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the editing process.

The puzzling choices keep coming right to the end. We even get a mini-version of the “Ultimate Badass” speech, where one of the characters, lamenting their inability to seduce or just kill Fong, says he’s like “a combination of Columbo, Philip Marlowe, Bruce Lee and a Catholic priest”. Fong is perhaps the ur-example of the invincible hero, as I’m not sure anyone so much as lands a punch on him at any point, but he kills a heck of a lot of people with his moves. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, either – I mean, he’s not great, but he doesn’t sound and look like he’d rather be anywhere else than in front of a camera.

I have nothing but positive words for “Blood Street”. A genuinely bizarre experience, with the wonderful Fong, who remained independent and therefore free from people telling him “maybe this movie ought to make sense” or “why did you hire Richard Norton and not have a big final fight with him?” A genuine bad movie pleasure, and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

Rating: thumbs up