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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Fugitive (1972) review

Ever seen the Shaw-Carlo Ponti co-production, THE STRANGER & THE GUNFIGHTER (1974)? How about the execrable THE FIGHTING FISTS OF SHANGHAI JOE (1974)? How about the obscurity that is KUNG FU BROTHERS IN THE WILD WEST (1973)? Well, get ready for a violent and bloody spaghetti western done Eastern style!


Lo Lieh (Siu Lao Fei Lung), Ku Feng (Ma Tien Piao), Li Ching (Ming Ming)

Directed by Tsang Tseng Chai

Siu Lao Fei Lung(Lieh) and Ma Tien Piao (Feng) are bandits who ride from town to town holding up banks and killing anyone who tries to stop them using their superb and rapid fire shooting skills. When a holdup goes wrong, Siu sends Ma away with the cash and tells him that if he is caught to try and rescue him later. Siu is tortured, and as time passes, he realizes his sworn brother isn't coming to save him. Instead, Ma sets up a gang of thugs with himself as the leader to carry on with murdering and banditry. Sui manages to escape and heads for Ma's encampment for a settling of accounts.

This film, obviously modeled after the Italian Spaghetti Westerns, is very exciting and bloody with enough wild gun battles for at least half a dozen Euro westerns. At nearly 77 minutes, the film chugs along at a brisk pace and the action seldom lets up. This becomes a slight problem as very few scenes are allowed to breathe; but then, action is the main attraction here.

This being a lower tier Shaw movie, it's mostly style over substance, although there are a few polished scenes. There's lots of well done tracking shots and the first meeting of Siu and Ma after Siu breaks out of jail is nicely done utilizing the 'Man With A Harmonica' piece taken from the soundtrack of Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

The opening and finale are both memorable as well as Siu's jailbreak and also the scene where he is attacked by dozens of killers sent by Ma in Death Valley. There are some great locations that also ape the Italian western nicely. About the only thing I can say that's even remotely negative is that rarely does anyone ever run out of bullets. This is a constant complaint from critics in the Italian westerns but here it's way OOT. It's fine for me but someone who takes these things seriously may be put off by it.

The action scenes are wildly outrageous which offers some exhilarating sequences which offer up the perfect extension of an actual kung fu fight. The way in which the gun battles are choreographed (mostly all multiple versus one or two opponents) are handled no differently had the performers been brandishing swords and spears or even fists and feet. The action sequences are breathtakingly exciting despite lacking any believability or logic.

In addition to some nice cinematographic touches, there's a preponderance of zooms that populate the film. This adds to the frenetic pace of the film particularly when there's action onscreen; and that's quite often. Some may be put off by the one or two against a hundred scenario that dominates the numerous gun battles. This was a staple of the revered Chang Cheh. His films would feature a near invincible hero fighting against impossible odds in a scenario that would see the protagonist often killed in battle covered in blood and his guts spilling out. The same thing applies here only swords have been replaced with guns.

There is also minimal use of kung fu on display. As already mentioned, the accent is on gunplay and even these scenes are laced with kung fu or 'gun fu' to be more precise. The sets as usual for Shaw Brothers movies are meticulous and quite amazing considering they produced anywhere from 40 to 50 movies a year(!) Even the lesser Shaw movies could be counted on to have some great sets if nothing else.

Lo Lieh, as most always, is very good here showcasing a nice range of emotion in this role. The whole movie is surrounded by Lo's character. Nearly all the action scenes involve him alone against dozens of attackers. He is at first a criminal but has a change of heart later in the film. This being a Shaw Brothers movie, there is much tragedy on hand and Lo Lieh gets a lot of it leading up to the big battle at the end. Lo even gets his hands smashed (again) to keep him from handling a gun.

A similar scene, but more violent, occurs in the first international kung fu hit KING BOXER (aka 5 FINGERS OF DEATH) from the same year. This being a Spaghetti Western done Shaw Brothers style, this sequence owes more to DJANGO (1966) I would say.

The award winning actor Ku Feng again displays another great villain role. Feng, who also would play a hero from time to time made some memorable movies playing incredibly sadistic bad guys. Here, he's a treacherous scoundrel who on several occasions uses lies and trickery to get out of a jam against Siu.

Sammo Hung even has a brief bit as a bandit that gets killed by Lo Lieh. He gets a couple of lines beforehand, though. It's quite interesting to see Hung in a Shaw movie considering his famous output for Golden Harvest. Dean Shek, whom had featured in a large amount of Shaw movies in supporting roles, went on to feature prominently in independently made martial arts films. He's one of the most recognizable character actors in martial arts cinema.

Director Tsang Tseng Chai is one of the lesser known directors to emerge from the Shaw Brothers Studios, but he handles the action scenes very well even though the bulk of the film looks as if the cinematographer suffered from ADD. One minute you get a nice tracking shot, the next minute the camera lens is all over the place zooming in and out at a rapid pace. Tsang would also deliver some fine, yet over the top action with the violence filled, THE CASINO (1972). Tsang also handled directing chores on some 'unreleased to DVD' pictures such as REDBEARD (1971), THE GAMBLING SYNDICATE and QUEEN HUSTLER (both 1975).

In keeping with the homage to Euro westerns, various musical cues are lifted from Italian oaters. Also, the actors are given stubble and have a very sweaty, unclean appearance to assimilate the style of the Spaghetti's. Definitely a step up from Chang Cheh's Martial "Spaghetti's" in terms of emulating the formula, Chang directed at least three films similar in style to spaghetti westerns--THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974), THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) and THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) also starring Lo Lieh.

All three are good films in their own right but THE FUGITIVE (1972) captures the flavor of the European sagebrush sagas perfectly. A thrilling, action packed and bloody film for fans of both cinematic styles.

This review is representative of the HK region 3 disc from IVL.


Sean M said...

An enticing brew of two wonderful genres,spaghetti westerns and Shaw Brothers,and essential for fans of either/both fields.

It plays out like a reworking of Carlo Lizzani's THE HILLS RUN RED but is much more bloody and action packed.

I love this film.10 out of 10.

venoms5 said...

A shame it didn't do very well in HK for if it did, no doubt there would have been many more films with the same vibe and energy. One of a number of gems long missing from the Shaw crown.

Sean M said...

So you don't think there maybe other lost sw influenced gems out there?

venoms5 said...

Aside from the three that Chang Cheh did, none that I'm aware of. The some 190 Shaw movies that didn't get released to DVD didn't seem to be of a similar nature. Chang Cheh's three below...

INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) also starring Lo Lieh had the sweaty faces and close ups in this catch the gold robbers tale.

THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) is Cheh's 'Revolution Eastern' with a trio of troublemakers stealing a cache of guns for freedom fighters.

THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) is the most obvious SW influence from CC wherein a town is besieged by a gang of cutthroats and the unlikely heroes that come together to save the town.

Jay Shatzer said...

Wow, The Fugitive looks and sounds awesome. I might have to spring for the region 3 disc, because this film looks like a bloody good time. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

venoms5 said...

There's nothing like a good Shaw Brothers movie, Jay! THE FUGITIVE is probably their best Spaghetti Western style movie. The film makes good use of the 'Man With A Harmonica' theme from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

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