Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eastern Condors (1986)

Eastern Condors is a Vietnam film pastiche that serves as a springboard for some eye popping stunts (and a few short kung-fu fights), but never gels as something more significant. Drawing inspiration from films like The Dirty Dozen and The Deer Hunter, it hits all the war-film buttons, but never transcends being merely a kung fu-laced series of homages.

The Dirty Dozen is obviously the central influence here, as the plot follows a collection of Chinese convicts dropped into Vietnam in the Mid-70s with the promise of freedom (and a hunk of cash) if they survive. Their mission is to destroy a hidden weapons depot that was accidentally left behind by the Americans before it can fall into the wrong hands. The rag tag bunch is led by Lieutenant Lam (the late Ching-Ying Lam, filling out the Lee Marvin role), and the convict Tung, played by martial arts legend Sammo Hung. Joining him is another action superstar, Yuen Baio as Weasel, a black market dealer and Academy Award winner Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) as Weasel's possibly insane uncle.

The film climaxes with some quality fights taking place in the weapons depot, with the surviving members battling the lanky, fem Vietnamese colonel (played by
Yuen Wah) and his elite soliders (including the great Billy Chow from Fist Of Legend). Up until this point the film had focused mainly on gunplay, but the martial arts demonstrations in the final twenty minutes are amazing. Yuen Baio, particularly, seems to be trying to find the most elaborate way to land on his own head. The supporting cast feature some familiar names for kung-fu fans, including the great Yuen Woo Ping (choreographer for The Matrix, Kill Bill, Fist Of Legend, etc.) and director Corey Yuen (The Transporter) in unfortunately minor roles.

Directed by Sammo Hung (who slimmed down significantly for the lead role), Eastern Condors is obviously trying really hard to break away from the mold of Mid-80s Hong Kong action films. While moments of humor squeak through, this is a grim and surprisingly violent story. While it borrows wholesale from The Dirty Dozen, that film spent a great deal of its time showing its collection of reprobates coming together as they went through their often grueling training. Eastern Condors throws the group right into the mission with only hints about their background. This lack of substance to the characters hurts the film when they start dying off and the audience is expected to care about their fates. There are simply too many faces and not enough time spent developing them.

Particularly wasted is Haing S. Ngor, who is shoehorned into the film in a role that doesn't really make any sense. His presence was obviously meant to give the film some weight, but instead is just confusing. Also, while the kung-fu sprinkled throughout the film is certainly impressive, it sometimes makes things feel a bit cartoonish. While I appreciate the restraint that Hung is showing as director, it's quite obviously pandering to the Kung Fu audience that are familiar with the talents of the main cast. Still overall it's quite a technical achievement, if a bit empty, and has some incredible stunt work leading up to the impressive final sequences.

The 20th Century Fox DVD is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the print is clear, if a little grainy at times. The Mid-80s were a time that the budgets and production values for Hong Kong action films were on the rise and the film doesn't hold back with explosions or gunfire, all of which look impressive here. The film is available both dubbed and subtitled, though the subtitles seem to not be a direct translation (with, at the very least, characters being renamed).

Included are American and International trailers for Eastern Condors, as well as trailers for Magnificent Warriors, City Hunter, Naked Killer, Magnificent Butcher, Heart Of Dragon, Hong Kong 1941, In The Line Of Duty 4 and Duel To The Death.

Somewhat disappointing considering the talent involved, Eastern Condors contains enough bloody shootouts and acrobatic action to keep fans satiated, but never is quite able to achieve the greatness of some of its influences. Still a worthwhile film in the genre, however, and features some wonderful talent in small roles.

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