Friday, February 29, 2008

Slaughter in San Francisco - 1974

Last year (2007) when Fortune Star/Joy Sales announced that they had picked up the video rights to a number of Hong Kong movies from the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a stir of excitement in the fan base. Though many of these films had already been released on DVD, there were enough titles that had never seen the light of day in the digital age to create a hunger in the stomach – in particular the films from Angela Mao and many from the early days of Golden Harvest – the production company behind Bruce Lee and later Jackie Chan. This fan fervor was fed when the distributor reached out to this base by asking them which films they wanted to have released first and how they wanted them presented. This P.R. move turned out to be partially an empty gesture unless the overwhelming response was to ask for most of these films to be released only on VCD – often with no English subtitles – and with no attempt to clean up the print source. When you see this shoddy effort, it only makes you marvel more at what Celestial has done with the Shaw Brothers films for all the critical quibbles aimed at them. At the same time though it is rather nice to see films such as Queen’s Ransom, Back Alley Princess, Broken Oath, Chinatown Capers, Naughty Naughty and Stoner finally available - all fine films that I have seen on video ages ago. I thought it was time to finally stop buying some of these releases and actually watch a few. Below is the first of what I hope will be many.

Slaughter in San Francisco (a.k.a. Yellow Faced Tiger, a.k.a. Karate Cop) - 1974

This film directed by Lo Wei presents a San Francisco not often seen by visitors – a San Francisco where everyone speaks Cantonese and practices kung fu. Apparently, Lo Wei had initially hoped to use this as another vehicle for Bruce Lee but the two had gone their separate ways by the time it got to production. Still, Lo Wei opportunistically brought in Chuck Norris who had faced off against Bruce in The Way of the Dragon. Other than that, a young Sylvia Chang and the unusual setting for a Golden Harvest production there isn’t much to recommend about the film. It has many of Lo Wei’s sore points – a clunky disjointed plot and poor action choreography – but none of his strengths – the visual style that he brought to many of his Shaw Brother films. This film has been available for a long time in an English dubbed version that reviews I read indicated had some bad camp value with Norris speaking in a British accented dub – but even that small pleasure is missing in this version.

Instead of Bruce Lee, Lo Wei turned to Don Wong (Wong Dao) for his lead role as a cop patrolling the streets of San Francisco (sadly no Karl Malden guest appearances). Don Wong had a solid if far from spectacular career in many Hong Kong martial arts films from the 1970’s to the 80’s. He portrays Wang, a stolid unsmiling cop, who is partnered up with an African-American – called John Sumner in the US version but the cringe worthy “Blackie” in the English subs. One afternoon they come across a woman crying for help and upon investigating they witness two males trying to rape a Chinese woman (Sylvia Chang). After beating up the culprits, Betty tells them it was all a joke and they were just playing a game – clearly not one covered in Hoyle’s. She is a spoiled ABC who prefers the company of husky white men with nice cars and dangles cigarettes from her sulky mouth.

A few days later Wang’s partner is kidnapped by a group of white men and taken to the beach for a beating – why? – who knows – but Wang shows up in time to give them a kung fu lesson but kills one in the process. Instead of getting a medal for saving his partner, Wang is booted out of the force and has to of course take a job as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. I am only surprised it wasn’t a laundry. Later Blackie is killed and the cops try to dump it on Betty’s parents – but Wang investigates on his own. This leads him to a narcotics gang headed by Chuck Norris – finally showing up about half way through the film.

Norris was still fairly new to film and still played the heavy in those days – and he had yet to acquire the fine subtle acting skills that he later brought to Walker Texas Ranger. Here he is a typical thug adorned with cigars and a fedora who says things like “I know two types of people. My friends or dead people” or “Men from our family only play with women with yellow skin, we never marry them.” With his shaggy hair and shaggier chest, he looks like a stock porn actor from the 1970’s. At the climax, Norris and Wong take it to one another and no prizes for those who guess who wins. The fight has some good moves but is most interesting for the fact that though both take a good beating no one seems to have a mark on their bodies.
The VCD quality is fairly poor – it is widescreen but with tiny subs that are a chore to read at times and interior and night scenes are extremely murky.

My rating for this film: 5.5

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