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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment (1977) review


Sonny Chiba (Duke Togo), Callan/Ga Lun (Captain Smithy), Etsuko Shihomi (Lam Ling), Dana (Lai Dut), Jerry Ito (Polanski), Tsuruta Koji (Shigemune)

Directed by Yukio Noda

The Short Version: This second film based on Takao Saito's popular manga is fine entertainment for fans of both Chiba and modern day HK crime pictures, but the character deserved a bigger budget and better director. As it stands, KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT barely manages to take out its target with a wobbly script, but benefits from some nice locations and an iconic portrayal from Chiba as the feared and formidable title hitman. There's also some nudity and a few cool action set pieces in what is basically BOND on a budget.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Chow Liu Fung is an enterprising drug lord who covertly purloins the goods from the criminal syndicate that funds him. The underworld has no intentions of letting him live and after several failed attempts to assassinate him, the mob decides to hire the worlds most feared assassin--Duke Togo, Golgo 13. With Chow in his sights, somebody else manages to snuff out the kingpin before Golgo pulls the trigger. It's learned by both Togo and a determined Hong Kong cop named Smithy that a Mr. Polanski, the Console of Porania is the real Mr. Big behind both Chow's racket and his demise. With the police tailing him to prevent Togo from ruining the case, the mysterious hitman plans to take out Polanski before he escapes Hong Kong.

Cinemart April 1978

If you're familiar with such "works" from director Noda like ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS (1974) and SOUL OF CHIBA (1977), than you know what to expect here for this outrageous, bafflingly batty, globetrotting (well, mostly the Asian territories) Toei actioner. The script--what can be salvaged of it--is inconsequential, despite the writers throwing in numerous details that attempt to pass themselves off as subterfuge. In its defense, the film does play a lot better in its original Japanese language version. The English dubbed version is one of the most atrocious ever compiled even though the one offered here is simply laid over the Japanese print. The words and sound effects rarely even moderately match up with lip movements and the onscreen action. This was likely more the fault of the team at BCI than anything else, but if viewing the dubbed version is your choice, this sloppiness ruins what little respectability this unquestionable 'B' picture has to offer.

Considering how huge of a star Chiba was at the time, it's surprising that Toei didn't wrangle a better director to guide the charisma soaked star. If not for Chiba, this movie would be almost worthless. Far from the man's best work, Chiba is the perfect choice to bring Saito's popular manga character to the big screen (previously essayed in 1973 by Ken Takakura), but unfortunately, Noda was far from the perfect choice of director. Kinji Fukasaku would have been much better for helming this live action adaptation than the wild card that is Yukio Noda. Fukasaku was likely immersed in his comically chintzy, but entertaining science fiction adaptation of 'Eight Dogs of Satomi' that was MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978). Noda's style isn't too far removed from the world of eccentric and boundary pushing filmmaker, Teruo Ishii, only without that directors panache, or ability to create an attractive visual palette.

Shot mostly in Hong Kong, KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT was a co-production between Toei and Callan Leung Cinema Co. Limited--Callan Leung being the films main Chinese star. Director Yukio Noda makes the most of the crowded islands locales and Asian film fans will spot a number of familiar faces from both Shaw Brothers and independently produced features. Noda's batshit approach to tossing realism and logic out the window applies here, but not to the extent of the aforementioned ultraviolent sleaze classic ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS and the other Chiba co-pro from '77, the incomprehensible VIOLENT DEATH! WAY OF THE EVIL FIST aka SOUL OF CHIBA aka SOUL OF BRUCE LEE--possibly the single nuttiest movie Sonny Chiba ever participated in. Noda also worked with Chiba in 1970 for YAKUZA DEKA, a gangster flick with Chiba playing a marijuana smoking undercover cop.

Hong Kong Movie News December 1976

The sultry Dana had worked for Shaw Brothers between 1973 and 1977 in a string of erotic exploitation movies and other escapist entertainment like SUPER INFRAMAN (1975) where she played a mostly human looking creature with talons and eyeballs on her palms. Most of her roles required her to shed her clothes and little else. Echoing a look similar to that of Li Han Hsiang's discovery, Shirley Yu, Dana seemed very comfortable being naked onscreen. Some of her other roles (with varying amounts of screen time) include SEX FOR SALE (1974), BLACK MAGIC (1975), LOVE SWINDLER (1976) and Sun Chung's awful COBRA GIRL (1977). For GOLGO 13, Dana is on familiar territory and she's pitch perfect playing the role of the conniving, deceitful bitch.

In compliance with Noda's other movies, there's a smorgasbord of implausibilities here, but this suits the comic nature of the source material. The bulk of the film is undeniably silly and often times seems to revel in these absurdities. That Togo never misses his mark regardless of the circumstances is definitely rife comic book hero material. It reaches an alarming level of ridiculousness, though, when he expertly pulls off hits while on boats rocking in the sea (managing to shoot a man straight through his telescope and piercing his eyeball!) or dangling from a cliff aiming for a target inside a passing helicopter and all with Togo's weapon of choice--an Armalite M16 mounted with a scope!

Above and below: Cinemart April 1978

The movie also begs credibility in a few scenes that show signs that this production was most likely shot fast and cheap. In so many Chinese modern crime pictures, the law is shown to be the equivalent of a concrete wild west substituting skyscrapers and busy city streets for rickety saloons and horse drawn carriages. The cops state their frustrations in making arrests, but always seem to fall into the 'shoot first, question later' mindset. One scene has Smithy and his unit arrive and just start shooting at people. When the scene turns ugly, one of the bad guys (who has been shot in the face by Smithy) brushes against a control box with the words 'Do Not Touch' plastered above it. The poor sap accidentally lowers a lever and the whole damn facility (well, a miniature of it) blows sky high. Who in their right mind would have an explosive ready fuse box in their place of business, anyway? Apparently Hong Kong has no OSHA regulatory operations to monitor such things.

Another scene that comes off terribly anemic is one of the films big set pieces. Togo plans to take out Chow at what is described as a gala event wherein Chow will donate a huge swimming pool to the city followed by a show from HK's Olympic Swimming team. For such an event, you'd expect there to be a big turnout, but there appears to be only about 50 people that show up and that includes Smithy and his subordinates! Also, the movie unnecessarily jumps from HK to Japan and back again (in between a temporary stop in Macau) in what appears to have been an excuse to show the films Chinese star, Callan, briefly walking around Kyoto locations. It does nothing to propel the story and comes off as an afterthought.

Even though Noda's direction reminds one of a sloppy joe (it tastes good, but makes a big mess), he does manage some snappy sequences from time to time to keep things lively and mildly interesting. The best scene for me would be when Togo is enjoying a tryst with Chow's adulterous wife. Of course this is a set up to kill our man from Japan, but this being Golgo 13, he's one step ahead of the sexy seductress. Another nicely done action sequence is a foot chase in and around the Walled City district of Hong Kong that allows Chiba to show off his stunt work prowess including a bit atop a moving bus that recalls a similar instance in Jackie Chan's POLICE STORY 2 (1987).

Chiba carves an iconic image with his menacing visage, brandishing a big gun and decked out in--among other fashion statements--his white suit. The character of Duke Togo is the perfect action anti hero schematic--his name, true ethnicity, age and his background are all unknown. Covered in scars, he maintains a cold, vicious demeanor, trusts no one and rarely ever cracks a smile. He's smooth with the ladies and even though he emotes about as much as THE TERMINATOR, Togo does display a human side during his time spent with a poor hooker with a heart of gold. He doesn't shake hands and says about as many lines of dialog as Charles Bronson in a DEATH WISH sequel. It's about image here and Chiba really shines in that department. As said above, without him, this movie would barely be of passing interest.

Callan Leung (Ga Lun) played a lot of cops in his career and here he gets lots of opportunities to display his frustration with the incapability of the police to successfully nail the criminal element. Even with all his dialog and 'fist on the table' theatrics, he fails to steal the film away from Sonny Chiba who, amazingly, gets less screen time and even fewer lines of dialog. Callan also took the lead in the bizarre horror flick RED SPELL SPELLS RED from 1983, a film that was part of the 'Evil Sorcerer' cycle of HK horror that began with Shaw's trendsetting BLACK MAGIC in 1975.

Etsuko Shihomi was one of Chiba's Japan Action Club's major proteges and the first to gain prominence in her own string of films. Here, she's playing an undercover HK cop who gets tortured by Chow. She gets to show off her fists and kicks in one scene before being captured and used as a shield against Smithy and company. Shihomi also played a Chinese in Japan in Norifumi Suzuki's bizarre SHOGUN'S NINJA from 1980--that film being a headlining role for Chiba's most popular pupil, Hiroyuki Sanada. Shihomi can be seen in such films as DRAGON PRINCESS (1976) and her own quartet of SISTER STREETFIGHTER movies.

The music of Harumi Ibe is incredibly catchy and aside from Chiba, is the best thing about the movie. The main theme is amazing and rivals the score for Chiba's iconic STREETFIGHTER movie from 1974. The cue for Golgo 13 featuring an unknown Japanese female singer is very reminiscent of the hauntingly beautiful voice of Ennio Moriconne's frequent collaborative muse, Edda Dell'Orso whose famous vocal chords can be heard in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) among other titles.

While the script and the character of Duke Togo are ripe for an awe inspiring theatrical presentation, this version fails to be that movie. It's not without its shining moments, it just needed a few more of them and a better director in the drivers seat. Still, it's much more controlled than the usual fruit loop approach of some of Noda's other movies. Fans of both Sonny Chiba and modern day HK crime pictures will be the best audience for this flawed, but entertaining footnote in the long and illustrious career of the one and only Shinichi Sonny Chiba.

This review is representative of the BCI Sonny Chiba Collection 6 film DVD set


Samuel Wilson said...

Saw this in a terrible print with nearly nonexistent sound in the old "Kill Chiba" box set from Crash Cinema. I didn't think much of the film then, but it was hard to separate the thing itself from the poor quality of reproduction. Thanks for a second opinion.

A hero never dies said...

I've wanted to see this for a while but never managed to track it down, how is the quality of the box overall Brian?

venoms5 said...

@ Sam: The movie is decent and if not for Chiba, wouldn't be nearly as good, imo. The music was very catchy and you may find yourself humming it from time to time. The widescreen quality print does do wonders, though and the Japanese cut is miles away better.

@ Martin: The box is well worth the money although some of the movies have been released by BCI already. SISTER STREETFIGHTER was part of a SS set from them and also on another double feature DVD from them. THE BODYGUARD and KARATE WARRIORS were also released as a double feature from BCI, too. Still, for the price, the two different cuts of BULLET TRAIN and GOLGO 13 is worth the buy, I'd say. Sadly, only the dubbed version of BODYGUARD is on here, but it's widescreen. The dub for GOLGO 13 is horrendous and looks like it may have been further hampered by a lazy overlay. The Japanese-English subbed version is the preferred one to watch.

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