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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Golden Needles (1974) review


Joe Don Baker (Dan Mason), Elizabeth Ashley (Felicity), Jim Kelly (Jeff), Burgess Meredith (Winters), Ann Sothern (Finzie), Roy Chiao (Lin Toa), Frances Fong (Su Lin), Tony Lee (Kwan), Si Ming (Su Lin), Fong Wah (Lotus), Sonny Barnes (Claude; as Clarence Barnes)
Directed by Robert Clouse
The Short Version: Imagine a movie about a boisterous Texas thief living in Hong Kong's underworld assigned to track down a golden statue that gives its owner youthful energy and a powerful libido. Add a bunch of familiar faces from Hong Kong martial arts movies, some big name American stars, a witty script and a ten minute foot chase through Kowloon's Walled City and you have a nifty little B-movie from the makers of ENTER THE DRAGON (1973). It's fun even if it's not pure action movie gold.

The search is on for a mysterious golden statue made for the Sung Emperor. The statue and its seven needles representing seven vital acupuncture points, bring youthful vigor and sexual prowess when applied correctly. If not, they bring about a brutal death. Master thief from Texas, Dan Mason, is hired to find the elusive statue and gets in trouble with Triad killers along the way. It's an adventure that begins in Hong Kong, moves to Los Angeles and back to Hong Kong.

GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974) is one of the weirdest martial arts pictures of the 1970s. An American production shot on location in Hong Kong, the film opens with an outrageously wild sequence wherein an old man in a wheelchair (Hao Li Jen, veteran player of over a hundred Shaw Brothers pictures) receives the fabled needles that restores his ability to walk. Surrounded by four prostitutes, the elder is barely in the bedroom before two men in fire-retardant suits enter and open fire with flamethrowers, turning everyone into extra crispy chicken tenders. A wacky movie throughout, it never attains this level of absurdity again; at least not till a maniacal Burgess Meredith shows up wearing an enormous, multi-colored bow tie.
There were a lot of movies like this throughout the 1970s of varying quality and substance. There was DYNAMITE BROTHERS (1974), BLACK BELT JONES (1974), KILL OF BE KILLED (1976), DEATH MACHINES (1976), DEATH DIMENSION (1978), CIRCLE OF IRON (1978), KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE (1979) and A FORCE OF ONE (1979) to name a few. Kung Fu pictures enjoyed a degree of popularity they would never enjoy again. With the global success of ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), it seemed logical the makers would follow that hit with another potential moneymaker.  

In what was to have been the first of a series of HK spy flicks, George Lazenby was initially set to star in what was being called, 'The Golden Needles of Ecstasy'; instead, he was replaced by Joe Don Baker who was enjoying the notoriety that the major Drive-in hit WALKING TALL (1973) was bringing him. 

In late 1973, it was also reported that Angela Mao and Cheng Pei Pei would be Lazenby's co-stars. Even though he didn't take the role, the one-time James Bond did work in Hong Kong pictures, making a few films for Golden Harvest like STONER (1974), THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (1975) and A QUEEN'S RANSOM (1976).
Like Lazenby, neither Pei Pei nor Angela Mao Ying appeared in the movie. Instead, Eurasian actress Si Ming (billed as Frances Fong) was the lead Chinese actress alongside leading American actress Elizabeth Ashley. Later in her career, Si Ming would do acting work on the stage and even hosted some paranormal television programs. She had been dating Lee Ka Ting since 1970 so her impressive strikes and kicks were likely due to him, making Pat Johnson's American-style choreography easier for her to pull off.

Lee Ka Ting has a supporting role as Lin Toa's main henchman. He was an actor in dozens of movies and a martial arts director in even more. He worked in many HK movies, particularly for the Shaw Brothers. He appeared in small roles in Chang Cheh's films and later moved up to choreographing them in pictures like NAVAL COMMANDOS and CHINATOWN KID (both 1977). When director Chang was making his 4th Generation films starring the Venoms, Chang became increasingly frustrated with the work done by famous martial arts instructor Leung Ting. The director remarked at the time how he was contemplating replacing Leung with Lee Ka Ting, noting how slow Lee was but preferable to the frustrations Leung was causing. Ultimately, Chang didn't bring Lee back, but did get rid of Leung Ting, giving Lu Feng, Kuo Chui and Chiang Sheng the opportunity to join forces and bring a much more satisfactory style of action design to the screen. 
If you've watched many Shaw Brothers pictures from the 1970s, you've assuredly seen Lee in the background somewhere. He would eventually move up to martial arts director which paid more than the numerous bit actor parts he was getting. He joined the industry in 1965 and worked on movies for other companies like Cathay and independents. Like many others, Lee moved into television. As stated above, he was dating his co-star, the aforementioned Si Ming at the time. The two would marry in 1977.

Leading the cast of this martial arts curio is Joe Don Baker. A memorable actor with a distinguished and imposing Texas drawl, Baker was an unsung action hero in the 1970s. He had some great lead parts throughout the decade; but unfortunately, too many Drive-in style pictures may have diminished his momentum into the 1980s. He was great as the one-armed confederate soldier who briefly clashes with Bernie Casey before siding together as two of the GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969). He was also in good company as one of the disturbed Vietnam vets in WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1971). Baker's career got wider notice after playing Steve McQueen's brother in Sam Peckinpah's JUNIOR BONNER (1972); and took off in a big way once the box office receipts came in for his starring role as real life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser in the original WALKING TALL (1973). Big ticket crime films came that same year for Joe Don with CHARLEY VARRICK and THE OUTFIT. 
Another crime picture, the brutal and underrated FRAMED came in 1975 and reunited Baker with his WALKING TALL director Phil Karlson. The actor's title role as MITCHELL (1975), a cult favorite DIRTY HARRY style cop thriller, was directed by veteran western film and TV director Andrew V. McLaglen. After the widely panned and misunderstood MITCHELL, Baker starred in a series of Drive-in style pictures like the wasted opportunity, CHECKERED FLAG OR CRASH (1977); then the obscure western spookshow THE SHADOW OF CHIKARA (1977). With crash n' burn car chaser flicks being big business in the late 70s, Baker did a really good one, although it's not well known; that being SPEEDTRAP (1977). One of his best was THE PACK (1977), arguably the best killer dog movie of that sub-genre. This film saw Baker being directed by Robert Clouse again.
The actor still got good roles in the 80s and 90s, but any leading parts were relegated to low budget pictures like FINAL JUSTICE (1984) or main bad guys in the comedy JOYSTCKS (1983) and the actioner GETTING EVEN (1986). 

Elizabeth Ashley plays Felicity, a delightfully mouthy broad who always finds herself in a predicament. The love interest to Baker's Dan Mason, the script spends a good deal of screentime with them. It never gets boring as there's plenty of witty banter between the two. It's another area where the filmmakers were obviously trying to differentiate themselves from the flurry of Kung Fu pictures emerging all over the place just a year after the world market exploded with them due to the board-breaking success of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972s KING BOXER); followed by Bruce Lee's fist and kickers, FISTS OF FURY (THE BIG BOSS) and THE CHINESE CONNECTION (FIST OF FURY).

Ashley is highly entertaining in the movie and a key reason it's as engaging as it is. She and Joe Don Baker work well off each other so it's a shame we didn't get at least one more adventure with the two co-stars.

Roy Chiao Hung is a formidable bad guy, playing the gangster Lin Toa. He conveys a great deal of villainy with his facial expressions and muted tone. If you're not a huge fan of martial arts pictures, particularly those of the Chinese-language variety, then you've likely see Chiao in several American-made martial arts-action films.

A cultured man, he spoke several different dialects and was fluent in English. An army interpreter in the 1950s, he would soon get into the film industry where he quickly met the woman he'd marry in 1958, a dubbing artist named Liu Yan Ping. He appeared in a variety of movies, predominantly for independent companies, including Golden Harvest before they became a major studio and after. His first film role was in Chang Cheh's first time out directing in STORM OVER ALISHAN in 1949. Other filmmakers he worked with include King Hu, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.
Mainstream audiences will remember Chiao best as the gangster menacing Dr. Jones at the beginning of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984); one of the main villains in THE PROTECTOR (1985); and Jean Claude Van Damme's martial arts teacher in BLOODSPORT (1988).

A devout Christian, Chiao founded a Christian Fellowship in Hong Kong. He passed away after suffering several heart attacks in April of 1999 at the age of 72.

One of the fun things about this movie is picking out the numerous HK film actors, some of whom would become famous over time. Richard Ng is one such performer seen in GOLDEN NEEDLES. He plays a gangster here, but he would become famous for his comedy roles. If you're a HK film fan, you will know him from the LUCKY STARS series of films. Some of his other related or similar pictures are CARRY ON PICKPOCKET (1982), WINNERS AND SINNERS (1983), the quartet of films in the POM POM series, YES, MADAM! (1985) and THE MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS (1986).
Rounding out the American cast....

Jim Kelly has what amounts to a guest star turn playing another partner to Joe Don Baker. Kelly was a real life Karate champion and taught the arts in his own school; but when it came to on-screen fighting, he seldom looked good doing action sequences. Pat Johnson was the fight designer on GOLDEN NEEDLES but Kelly wanted to do the honors for his one fight scene.

The choreography is what you'd expect from an American production; although the Asian performers look the best doing American-style MA choreo. Baker does a surprisingly good job in his fight scenes with his "hunched-over" style when tossing people through windows or glass doors that always seem to be nearby in all the fight scenes.

One of GOLDEN NEEDLES' most prestigious participants is Ann Sothern, a multi-Emmy nominated actress of stage and screen and comedienne. A close friend to Lucille Ball and the star of a few television shows, Sothern was a businesswoman and singer. In the 1970s when her movie career began to wind down, she did a handful of Drive-in type pictures like the underrated THE KILLING KIND (1974), CRAZY MAMA (1975) and THE MANITOU (1978).

He's best known for his TWILIGHT ZONE appearances, playing The Penguin on TV's BATMAN series, and playing Mickey Goldmill, the ill-tempered boxing trainer to ROCKY (1976); Burgess Meredith is probably the last person you'd expect to see in a martial arts movie. An award-winning actor, once he hit his late 60s-early 70s, he took on an occasional quirky role like many of his colleagues did during their career twilight years. There's really no need for Meredith's flamboyant crime boss character, but it's another weird element to the script that probably would've been expounded upon had the film been a hit and a sequel made.

It's not 24 karat Kung Fu cinema, but GOLDEN NEEDLES is certainly a fun little movie with a list of actors you'd never associate with the genre. If you're looking for something similar, and in a closer vein to the Hong Kong style, then the US-HK co-pro CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975) comes highly recommended. But as far as weird 70s actioners go--and for Joe Don Baker fans--there's a bounty of value in this minor nugget of vintage American martial arts action.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber blu-ray. Specs and extras: 2.35:1 1080p anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary with Howard S. Berger and Chris Poggiali; image gallery; radio spots; theatrical trailer; reversible artwork; running time: 01:32:15

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