Angel Force

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“In the jungle, the Lee-on sleeps tonight…”

This is confusing. For the IMDb lists a completely different film by the same title – also made in 1991 and starring Moon Lee. That one stars Simon Yam: this one doesn’t. Meanwhile, Amazon has Yukari Oshima in the cast – I may have blinked and missed her, but more likely she was in the other one. It is also, despite the title, entirely unrelated to the Angel series, though did remind me I’ve not yet got round to reviewing parts two and three of that. If you see it referred to as Mission Kill and Mission of Condor too, I think that’s the “other” Angel Force as well; one site even refers to this movie as Lethal Blood 2, although it bears no relation to the first movie there either. I hope this helps…

Regardless, I wondered early on if this would even qualify, as May (Lee) takes a back seat, playing second banana to her boss, Peter (Lam). He has been tasked with rescuing kidnapped Westerner Harrison, stashed away after his capture, deep in the Burmese jungle by local drug lord, Khun Sa [who appears to have been a real person]. After putting together a team, on virtually the eve of the recovery mission, Peter is gunned down in an attempted hit, and it’s up to May to lead things. There are problems both outside and inside the team. A mole is leaking information on the mission to the people they are after, and the first guy Peter recruits, Benny (Ng), turns out to be a borderline psycho, who gets a bit rapey with a captured enemy. It’s up to May to complete the mission, get out alive, and then figure out who is the informant.

Right from the start here, there’s no shortage of action. Though a bit too much of it consists of two group spraying automatic gunfire at each other, through thick jungle foliage and with all the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. While I am never averse to seeing a guard-tower explode in a good, giant fireball, there is a limit to the appeal of such things, and it is certainly reached here, well before the arrival of what may be the first deus ex helicopter in cinema history. I was also amused by the painfully early nineties approach to both mobile phones the size of bricks,  and high-tech searches represented by a computer screen where the text largely consists of word-processor installation instructions. No wonder the team ended up with Psycho Benny.

Fortunately, the guns here jam or run out of ammo with regularity which could be concerning if I were a weapons manufacturer. As a viewer though, the film is on far more solid ground when dealing with the hand-to-hand action. Lee leads from the front with some fights that showcase her speed and agility to good effect. The most notable of these is a battle against Fujimi Nadeki after the near-assassination of Peter, in which May chases the killer through the streets on a motorcycle, to a half-demolished building. A savage gun-battle follows, notable not least for May’s point-blank execution of one man, ending with her going up against Nadeki. While it forms the high point, more or less any time Lee puts the gun down is a good indication you should start paying greater attention here.

Dir: Shan Hua
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Hugo Ng, Fong Lung
a.k.a. Tian shi te jing

Angel Terminators 2

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“Angels of death”

angelterm2I have not seen Angel Terminators, so cannot comment on its merits or flaws. However, it does not appear that this impacted my thorough enjoyment of this slice of early 90’s Hong Kong goodness, and nor did the mangled subs which leave me a little vague on some details. The two heroines are Chitty (Lee) and Bullet (Oshima), who are… Cousins? Sisters? Not sure. Bullet has just got out of prison, having turned to delinquency after blaming her policeman father for the death of her mother. He and his partner (Hu) – who adds to the confusion because everyone calls her Big Auntie – try to achieve a reconciliation, but Bullet is unimpressed. She goes to her former gang boss for money, having taken the fall and gone to jail for him, but he just wants Chitty to become a hostess. The fight than ensues, kicks off a chain of events which leads to Bullet stealing some jewels belonging to the boss, who unleashes the accurately-named Brother Mad (Wong).

Will there be mayhem? Yes. Will there by fisticuffs and much gunplay? Yes. Will there be people strung up from lamp-posts like some kind of novelty Chinese lanterns? I’m not saying: I’ll let the film retain some element of surprise. But for all its broad strokes of characterization, it manages to deliver a relatively-even tone, without any of the slapstick and comic interludes which sometimes plague other entries. Indeed, it does become progressively darker, with a kidnapping forcing action that then goes horribly wrong, setting up even further death and violence. This is all accompanied by high-quality action, right from the get-go, starting with Hu leading an assault on criminals holed up in a restaurant, before quickly bringing you a battle between Lee and the leaders of another training squads in a gym, then escalating from there through to a bloody finale.

It’s easy to become somewhat jaded, particularly when you’re watching films because of their genre, without applying any quality control. But then you find a movie like like this, which looks like just another generic action heroine flick, yet instead delivers everything you could want from low-budget action, easily making up for in energy what it may lack in polish. With Lee, Oshima and Hu, you have a hand of three aces, and the film is only a couple of Khans (Cynthia and Michelle, a.k.a. Michelle Yeoh) from having the best cast ever in a HK action heroine film. Unlike some (hello, Avenging Quartet), it lives up to that.

Dir: Lau Chan + Chin-Ku Lu
Star: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Chi Yeung Wong, Sibelle Hu

Kickboxer’s Tears

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“Tears are not enough.”

kickboxersA truly crappy plot here, used to link fight scenes that range from the boring – that would be the actual kickboxing, which greatly outstays its welcome – to the impressive. Li Feng (Lee) is visiting her kickboxer brother in Hong Kong, when he is killed by a cheating opponent, after refusing to take a dive on the orders of Mr Wong (Lung). The death also throws into jeopardy the family training gym/healthcare establishemnt [a crossover at which no-one blinks an eye], which was already financially shaky. To both get revenge, and earn enough money to stabilize things, Li goes to Wong, and demands an underground rematch against his fighter. When that happens, but leaves her opponent permanently paralyzed, Mrs. Wong (Yukari Oshima), who is the victim’s brother, as well as the promoter’s wife, demands a winner-take-all match to the death. And she kidnaps Li’s semi-boyfriend (Lam) to make sure Li  turns up for the contest.

This 1992 Hong Kong film has the same jarring shifts in tone present in many of that time and place. Given the sombre nature of the core situation, there really shouldn’t be any room for slapstick humor – yet there are at least two comic relief characters too many here, and I found myself cringing in just about every one of their scenes. The early action is more than a bit ropey too: while it may be ‘authentic’ kick-boxing, it’s pretty dull to watch, and it’s only when the film moves outside the ring that things become interesting, especially when Lee gets going. She has one great street-fight against a group of thugs, another in a restaurant when she’s proving her worth to Wong as an opponent, and of course, the all too brief duel which pits her – literally, since they’re in a pit – against Oshima. All three are a great combination of inventiveness and hard-nosed action, also showcasing Lee’s great flexibility [there’s also an eye-popping training scene, where her character casually does what is best described as the vertical splits].

However, to appreciate these sequences, you are going to have to sit through story-telling of the most cliched sort, plus acting from her supporting cast that would be rejected as lacking in subtlety by Adam Sandler. Particularly irritating is the finale which has three fight scenes going on at once, cross-cutting between them to the detriment of all three, then robs Li of being able to take her thoroughly-deserved revenge personally, before ending so abruptly, I was left wondering if the final ten pages of script had fallen into a shredder, and the makers decided just to do without them. All these other aspect are significantly sub-optimal, and ten good minutes of action do not sufficiently outweigh them. Especially not when those ten minutes are embedded below, saving you an hour and twenty. You’re welcome!

Dir: Da Wei Shen
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Mark Cheng, Lung Fong

Beauty Investigator

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“Beauties and the beasts.”

beautyinvestigatorEllen (Lee) and Grace (Kim) are police officers, who are first on to arrive when the latest victim of a serial sexual predator is found in a dumpster. After a brief diversion to catch a purse snatcher – really, how dumb must you be to do that at a murder scene? – they are sent undercover as nightclub hostesses, since that’s the profession of all the victims. While fending off both lecherous customers and employers, they stumble across an arms smuggling outfit, whose leader Bill (Tsui) has pulled a fast one over his Yakuza partners, with the help of a hired hitwoman (Oshima, whose character in the end credits is named as, I kid you not, “Japanese Jap”!). Rather than letting their superiors know, they decided to investigate themselves. Probably not the wisest of moves: as they’ll discover by the end of the movie, discretion is indeed the better part of valour…

Very quickly, the bar for this one is set low, with the creators’ idea of comedy gold being to have Grace throw up over the corpse on seeing it: oh, hold my sides, for I fear they may split. If you’d be thinking the only way to go from there is up, the next hour seems to take a sadistic pleasure in proving otherwise, with Ellen and Grace doing the “mismatched cop” thing, which was already about 20 years past its sell-by date, when this came out in 1993. Then, with about 20 minutes to go, the film inexplicably takes a far darker turn (especially considering how lightly the previous carnage has been played), with the mission become one of personal revenge rather than law enforcement. In cinematic terms, it’s like putting a sprig of parsley on a cow-pat, and calling it a salad: I was left wondering if someone had sloppily spliced on the final reel of an entirely different movie.

The only redeeming aspect – and even this falls well short of making it recommendable – is the action, which is quite frequent and high in intensity. Lee and Oshima are both in fine form, and watching the pair of them go toe-to-toe with each other is a joy, as always: that’s particularly so for the end battle, in which all the previously mentioned participants are involved, along with Sophia Crawford, who plays the villain’s mistress (she also takes an entirely gratuitous shower in some versions of the film). However, the truth is, you can see Lee and Oshima in any number of other movies, without having to endure the feeble efforts at buddy comedy attempted here. And you’d be well advised to do just that.

Dir: Tso Nam Lee
Star: Moon Lee, Kim Je Kee, Tsui Zen Aie, Yukari Oshima

Devil Hunters

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“When Sibelle Hu asks ‘Mind if I smoke?’ she may not mean what you think…”

devilhuntersBonus half-star for the final scene, which has the three leads leap out a window, as a giant explosion goes off behind them. Rather too giant, as a mistake in the amount of gunpowder used, apparently led to both Hu and Lee suffering third-degree burns. You can see it below: the part of the roman candle in the middle, is played by the former. :( Which may explain why the film abruptly ends there, over a montage of apparent newspaper clippings, and the heartfelt well-wishes of the director to his injured stars. Such sacrifice can only be admired.

Though, as with Michelle Yeoh’s accident on The Stunt Woman, you can’t help wishing it had been made in the service of a better movie. Particularly early on, this seems nothing more than a set of random action scenes spliced together, without rhyme, reason or a plot to connect them. Eventually, it turns out that there is virtually a queue of people, all with reasons for a grudge against gangster boss Hon San (Wong Wai), who appears to be the “devil” of the title. Among these are cop Inspector Tong (Hu); Hon San’s underling, Chiu Shing (Francis Ng); Chai Sun (Lui), who seeks vengeance for the death of his father; and finally, an enigmatic young woman Abby (Lee). By the time of the fiery finale, alliances are formed, the true villain revealed, and a great deal of butt kicked, but you’ll be hard-pushed to retain significant interest through the plethora of subplots as they unfold.

Perhaps the main problem is that, between getting these and the action in, there’s very little time for anything else, such as making us give a damn about any of the characters. Without exception, they appear to be out of the box of Hong Kong stock clichés: deceitful gangster, stoic cop, etc. and none of the plot twists will provoke much more than an “Eh.” Overall, you’re better off taking this as the “random action scenes spliced together” mentioned earlier, and having it on in the background while you do something more productive.

Dir: Chin-Ku Lu
Star: Sibelle Hu, Alex Man, Moon Lee, Raymond Lu
a.k.a. Megaforce 2, Red Force 3, Ultra Force 2

Dreaming the Reality

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“Taking the red pill”

Dreaming the RealityThere’s half a good movie here, albeit one which treads some rather familiar territory. It might seem hard to go wrong, with three of the most-renowned Hong Kong action actresses in one place, but as we saw with Avenging Quartet, quantity does not guarantee quality. The main issue is two separate plots, which appear to have strayed in from entirely different movies, and which don’t even cross paths for about an hour.

In one corner, we have Kat (Oshima) and Silver Fox (Lee), who have been raised by their foster father as assassins. But after one hit results in collateral damage to an unfortunately-timed school bus, Fox starts to have doubts about her career path. They’re dispatched to Thailand to recover a floppy disk containing damaging evidence [Older readers: it wasn’t even one of the little ones, but a full-on 5 1/4″ disk! Younger readers: look “floppy disk” up.]. Fox gets their target, but in the ensuing chase suffers a bout of cinematic amnesia. And that’s where the other plot kicks in. Lan (Hu) is an ex-HK cop who has been trying to keep her brother, Rocky (Lam), out of trouble, despite his ambitions to be a champion kick-boxer. This leads to all kinds of goofy and entirely uninteresting shenanigans, with Lan having to sub for Rocky in one fight, fend off an evil manager, etc.

It’s only after Fox stumbles into Lan’s bar, that things gel, and from then on, it’s an almost ceaseless barrage of gunfire and punches, with some surprising deaths, and all three heroines on top form, particularly Lee and Hu. This makes up for the opening hour, which largely alternates between the “tortured killer” cliché and excruciating comic mugging. The former is preferable, not just because the action is better-staged, but also because Lee and Oshima do get to deliver some interesting lines, which succeed in giving their characters a bit more depth than you’d imagine. When Fox asks Kat, “What would you do if I died?”, her answer is a straightforward yet poignant, “I’d die with you.” But this darkness jars badly with the slapstick elements, and Liu has no idea how to combine them into anything like a coherent whole.

Dir: Tony Liu
Star: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Sibelle Hu, Ben Lam

Here’s the end fight, with Lee going up against Eddie Ko, who plays her foster father.

Angel end fight

If you read last month’s review of Angel – and if you haven’t, go do so and we’ll wait! – you’ll know it was one of the formative influences of the genre. The clip below shows you exactly why, as Moon Lee (with support from Elaine Lui) and Yukari Oshima go toe-to-toe. Almost 25 years later, it’s still up there in terms of hard-hitting F/F action. No subs. But trust us: it doesn’t need them.

Angel

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“Is for girls with guns, what Night of the Living Dead is for zombies.”

This and Yes, Madam were basically the Genesis and Exodus of the genre as we know it. Sure, there had been action heroines before, but never with quite the heft of their male counterparts. Madam showed they could kick ass with the best of them; Angel took this, and added about a billion bullets to the mix. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, with scenes that appear randomly inserted and characters so shallow they resemble a puddle. But its influence was massive, and if you can watch the final battle without wincing, as Lee and Oshima kick the utter crap out of each other, you’re made of tougher stuff than I [It’s the December 2011 video of the month].

The plot sees the ‘Angels’ – a mercenary, extra-governmental group – called in to take on a drug-smuggling cartel which is killing off cops following success against their heroin operation. It’s led by the amazingly evil Madame Yeoung (Oshima, turned up to 11), who is planning something to recoup the lost income; what that is, is up to the Angels to find out. Of particular interest, the Angels include Moon and Elaine (Lee and Lui), the former sober, the latter flighty and apparently incompetent; they and their much less-interesting male counterparts have to uncover Yeoung’s plan, rescue captured colleagues from her HQ, in a blaze of gunfire, and then go to the factory that’s at the heart of the villainess’s operations, for the final battle.

Like Living Dead, it’s certainly something which has been done a good deal better since, with the non-action elements clunky to the point of occasionally cringe-inducing, especially during a first half that does take some time to get going – though spontaneously combusts whenever Oshima is on-screen. However, once it does, this is packed with meaty goodness, and a take no prisoners approach from both sides that makes for an all-out war. There’s some confusion over the directors: the DVD box gives it as Teresa Woo, the IMDB lists Woo and Leung, but I’ve gone with the names listed on the actual movie credits. Whoever it was, certainly had a great handle on the action, and time has not dulled that aspect of the film whatsoever.

Dir: Raymond Leung, Leung Siu Hung, Ivan Lai
Star: Moon Lee, Hideki Saijo, Elaine Lui, Yukari Oshima
a.k.a. Iron Angels

Fatal Termination

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“No kids were harmed in the making of this film. Fingers crossed, anyway.”

At first, this isn’t much of anything, least of all an action heroine movie. Cop Simon Yam investigates a customs officer (Shou) who is smuggling guns; it’s pretty ho-hum until an innocent underling is killed after finding evidence of the crimes. When his sister Moon (Lee) and her husband (Lui) get involved, this swiftly leads to the one scene in this film that everyone remembers…

The villains snatch Moon’s daughter off the street (literally!), and drive away with Mom on the bonnet, trying to fight her way into the car. The daughter – who is probably about 2 1/2 – is dangling out the passenger window, held by her ponytail, as they whizz through Hong Kong streets. This is impossibly impressive CGI (especially for 1990), and I suspect they genuinely did hang a frightened toddler out the window of a speeding car… At the bottom of the page, you’ll find a clip which gives you an idea of what we mean, from an era where traumatising small children was apparently not an issue of concern. It’s one where you go, “Well, they’re only showing it in clos… Oh, damn. Okay, at least they’re not going faster than 15 mp… WHAAAAAAT?”

This kicks off an amazingly intense 15 minutes in which, without giving too much away, things get even worse for the daughter. :-( It belies both the opening, and a finale that’s little more than a lot of people driving around, shooting at each other. Moon Lee has a cool fight against the big boss, and gets to fire off some large weaponry, but the one who truly deserves to be called an action heroine in this film, is that un-named little girl.

Dir: Andrew Kam
Star: Ray Lui, Philip Ko, Moon Lee, Robin Shou + the unknown toddler

Mission of Justice

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“Ten minutes of good action, and a lot of zzzzzz.”

I hoped for more from a pairing of Lee and Oshima, each having done fine work individually, but as is often the case, the return declines, the more action heroines are crammed in. There’s no less than five here: two special agents (Lee and Oshima), their commander (Ng), plus the smuggler they’re after (Sharon Yeung, at a guess?) and her sidekick. Oh, Sophia Crawford turns up briefly too. Never mind the quality, feel the width…

I think it’s drugs that are involved here, but weapons, forged money and white slavery are also thrown in at various points. There’s also no honour among the thieves, as the middle part of the film proves, during an immensely tedious trek through the jungle. Lee and Oshima vanish without a trace, after a couple of good fights early on; the pacing then collapses entirely, until a ludicrous, excessive gun-battle at the end. Fortunately, the baddies have attended the Imperial Stormtrooper accuracy course – though since our heroines are supposed to be capturing their target alive, would have thought hurling an apparently infinite supply of hand-grenades might not be the best tactic…

Could really have done without the tone-deaf music and the lurid costumes, but I suppose it’s nice to see the disabled getting work. Sure there’s an excellent trailer to be made here, and when the ladies get to do more than wave guns around, this is pretty good – unfortunately, there isn’t enough of that, and the rest of the movie is almost embarrassingly weak.

Dir: Chun-Yeung Wong
Star: Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima, Tommy Wong, Carrie Ng