Zhang Yimou’s recent Great Wall shows that, with audiences and producers alike, there’ll always be a weird fascination to East-meets-West action flicks. When the kung fu movie boom of the 1970s shot Chinese cinema into the Western spotlight, international producers everywhere jumped on the bandwagon. Eager to capitalize on a bottomless audience appetite for martial arts mayhem, Western distributors started collaborating with the larger Eastern studios to try and create films with even wider appeal.
When Warner Bros and Golden Harvest struck gold with their co-production of Enter The Dragon, others followed fast. Hammer and the Shaw Brothers had a crack at mixing kung fu and vampires in Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires, but over in Australia, Greater Union and Golden Harvest were hatching an even more outlandish collaboration: The Man From Hong Kong.
This incredible movie came from the mind of writer/director Brian Trenchard Smith who, having forged a decent career in editing and production on Australian TV, had recently taken to documentary making. After The Stuntmen, his 1973 one-hour TV special about his daredevil mates, proved popular, and Smith re-teamed with stunt expert Grant Page for a follow-up feature-length doc called Kung Fu Killers. This was shot in Hong Kong and is a wonderful curio in itself, as Page gets tasked with learning the ways of kung fu movies from a variety of contemporary stars like Carter Wong and Angela Mao (both of whom he ends up fighting onscreen). Due to the criminal lack of behind-the-scenes footage available from this amazing era of filmmaking, Kung Fu Killers is a special watch just for the novelty of seeing what it was like. Page and Smith get some fun and frank interviews with people at all stages of the process at Golden Harvest, even down to the fascinatingly strange work done by the dubbers, whose enthusiasm for the genre gives it an almost childlike sense of wonder.
As a result of the doc (which was a great success on Australian TV – perhaps in part due to all the nudity and violence they cut in with the talking heads?), Smith made a wealth of contacts at Golden Harvest and pitched them a co-production with Greater Union (one of Australia’s major production companies) that would basically be James Bond by way of Bruce Lee. With a budget of around 500,000 AUD (later to increase to 550,000 AUD after they paid 50,000 AUD for the rights to use the super-catchy disco theme tune Sky High), the newly formed joint venture set about creating a wild all-action ride that—according to its director—features just 18 minutes of dialogue across its 106 minute run time.
The film’s leading man, Jimmy Wang Yu, was already a huge name actor-director in Hong Kong, celebrated for his One Armed Boxer and One Armed Swordsman films (he does have two arms in real life, in case you wondered), and here he plays Hong Kong special branch Inspector Fang Sing Leng, who’s sent to Sydney to extradite a drug smuggler (played by a very young Sammo Hung). When things go awry and the smuggler is shot on his way to the plane, the inspector takes it upon himself to bring down the man responsible: Sydney’s crime kingpin, Jack Wilton (played by former James Bond George Lazenby, the big name Western draw). Utter city-trashing mayhem ensues…
Wang Yu, despite a reportedly “fractious relationship” with the director, gives a charismatic performance and his fighting is as brutal as it gets. The fight choreography comes courtesy of Sammo Hung and, while he was still relatively new to the work, his gift for putting together exciting and elaborate fights is evident (and eagle-eyed viewers may spot his Seven Little Fortunes brothers Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen as extras in one of the brawls). There are some classic scraps here and, to give him his due as well, George Lazenby pulls out all the stops, both in doing a lot of his own fighting (he was already trained in Taekwondo) and stunts; something rare for the western stars in these types of movies.
Considering this was a first feature for Trenchard Smith, it’s an accomplished piece of work and shot with imagination and style. The script may have its tongue firmly in cheek and the dialogue is outrageous at times, but the film treats action with a sincere reverence. Part of why it works so well is that the cast and crew seem abnormally happy to risk life and limb in the name of getting the shot right. Reading a list of injuries sustained by stuntmen, actors and crew members while shooting this only adds to the disbelief factor. There’s an unbelievable car chase sequence to rival the best of ’em, and let’s just say neither car would pass its MOT by the time they finish. (Although, hilariously, legend has it that one was fixed up and sold as ‘new’ after the film wrapped. and its buyer only realized it was second-hand after seeing the film and standing up half way through the screening to shout “THAT’S MY CAR!”)
There’s a classic shot early on when a (different) car explodes and the door blows off and whizzes past the camera, barely missing several crew members, but this was entirely accidental. They just didn’t realize that, when blowing up cars, you’re meant to chain down any parts that are likely to fly off like that. If the trajectory had been a couple of feet different, it could’ve been fatal. Instead, they wound up with a stunning and iconic action shot that remains unique (because no one sane would ever try to copy it!).
While shooting a daredevil hang gliding sequence, Wang Yu crashed and fell 100 feet onto sand, knocking himself out. He had to be kept off set for two days but, as soon as he returned, they had him climbing up drain pipes with no safety nets beneath them. Even some of the smaller stunts are staggering when you stop to think about them, like a moment where Wang Yu flying-kicks Grant Page off a moving motorbike. Trenchard Smith shoots it in a single-take wide shots and the effect of seeing this all happen with no cuts or trickery is jawdropping.
In fairness to Brian Trenchard Smith, he was by no means standing around tormenting his cast while afraid to get his own hands dirty. He cameos as a ‘heavy’ who fights Wang Yu in a moving elevator and gets given a proper beating (a scrap that was apparently not faked but more of a tension release for both parties). He also got flung through (actual, not sugar) glass and set himself on fire. This last bit was just to demonstrate a stunt to George Lazenby; it wasn’t even onscreen! Lazenby wound up sustaining actual real life burns when he did the stunt which, incidentally, involved trying to fight Jimmy Wang Yu while on fire. Yes, it’s the kind of movie where dudes on fire just keep fighting. And you can’t beat that.
Topped off by an all-star cast of character actors (Frank Thring, Roger Ward, Hugh Keays-Byrne) who add color and humor, The Man From Hong Kong is a rare success, both in terms of blending Eastern and Western action styles and of providing a snapshot of how no-holds-barred Aussie cinema was at the time (Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood documentary is also highly recommended to prove this point). If you like action or martial arts or just batshit crazy movies, you need to make the acquaintance of The Man From Hong Kong.