Five years after the outstanding Armour of God (1986), clown prince of kung fu Jackie Chan took a second stab at outdoing Indiana Jones with this ambitious sequel. Intrepid treasure hunter, er… Jackie Chan (what exciting double-lives Hong Kong movie stars lead! See also Zen Kwando Strikes Paris (1979) where John Liu works for NASA and Bruce Lee in New Guinea (1978) where the dragon dabbles in anthropology), a.k.a. Asian Hawk, paraglides inside an ancient cave and retrieves a mysterious glowing green rock from a bunch of masked tribesman. They prove surprisingly accommodating, telling Hawk he can help himself to as many gemstones as he likes, but go ape when he inadvertently drinks their holy water.
In one of those “only in a Jackie Chan film” moments, our hero escapes inside a giant inflatable beach ball that rolls him all the way down the mountain. Empty handed, but alive - which establishes the pragmatic, if unsettlingly demoralizing theme of this movie…
Not long afterwards, Jackie’s old friend Baron Bannon (Bozidar Smiljanic) - or Duke Scapio in some versions - recruits him for a U.N. sponsored mission: recover a stockpile of gold bars leftover from the Second World War and hidden inside a secret Nazi desert base. Jackie is teamed with Ada (Carol 'Do Do' Cheng), an expert on the African region, for a globe-trotting escapade that runs from Barcelona to the Sahara desert, involving dirt bike chases, comedy Arabic terrorists, a young woman named Elsa (Eva Cobo Garcia) out to prove her Nazi grandfather’s innocence, Tuareg slave traders, kooky hippie chick Momoko (Shoko Ikeda) and her pet scorpion Ding-Dong, an underground airbase and a neo-Nazi commando squad led by a late-arriving, wheelchair-bound villain called Adolf (Aldo Sambrell, who was once the Voodoo Black Exorcist (1973)).
Many ardent kung fu fans maintain Operation Condor eclipses its predecessor and often extend their argument claiming it ended the creative carte blanche Jackie Chan enjoyed at Golden Harvest and the quality of his movies rolled rapidly downhill afterwards. While I would vehemently argue these first and third assertions are spurious, there is a whiff of truth about point number two. Operation Condor was Jackie’s comeback project after suffering the heartbreak of having Miracles (1989), his most personal and artistically ambitious directorial effort to that point, rejected by Hong Kong movie-goers and extensively re-cut by distributors into a more conventional action movie titled The Canton Godfather. In fact a few theatre owners still weren’t satisfied and pruned their prints even further.
Hence the Armour of God sequel feels like the work of a filmmaker eager to recant any artistic “pretensions” and please his public with an attack plan of all-action, no filler, even though the film ran considerably over budget. The money shows on screen. This is one of Jackie’s glossiest looking productions and a good showcase for his directing. Not just his way with staging stunts but his ingenious use of the scope frame, some inspired slapstick flourishes and sumptuous photography of those daunting desert dunes. Chan burned through three cinematographers in his efforts to mimic visuals from one of his favourite movies - Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
The film finds Jackie in his prime as a martial artist and stuntman, throwing himself into death-defying stunts and kicking all sorts of ass. And yet aside from the justly legendary wind tunnel sequence (supposedly inspired by Total Recall (1990)), much of the action is merely a variation on old tricks or re-staging past favourites. While lacking the quirky appeal of the first movie, this still retains much of that idiosyncratic Hong Kong movie charm lacking in his later efforts with Stanley Tong. Who else but Jackie would mix rapid-fire kung fu with sophomoric humour as when he hides in the bathroom while Eva Corbo takes a pee, or whips off a towel to distract villains with a glimpse of naked Carol Cheng.
While the kung fu is zesty there is an oddly disgruntled tone to proceedings that frays the nerves. In this adventure little goes right, escape by a hair’s breadth is the best the good guys can hope for, and every gutsy act of defiance from our heroines is punished with a brutal beating. Compared to the vivacious Lola Forner in Armour of God, Jackie’s three female co-stars mostly scream, bicker and make clumsy mistakes, although it is uncomfortable how many times a woman being punched is played for laughs.
Even when the girls heroically bash a handful of villains, the scene rambles on till the bad guys get back on their feet and exact violent retribution, while the camera masochistically lingers on every punch. This is very different from the plucky, capable heroines in Jackie’s earlier movies or indeed later works like Supercop (1992) and Who Am I? (1998). Strangely, Jackie shows a lot more compassion towards his antagonists, allowing ambiguous chief villain Adolf his chance at redemption and pointlessly letting those two extremely irritating comedy Arab terrorists make it to the final fadeout.
What’s more, the closing shot is weirdly bleak for such a light-hearted kung fu caper. Armour of God is about friendship, joie de vivre and silliness triumphing over the forces of darkness. Operation Condor is a movie with one seriously masochistic streak, only underlined by the cheerfully violent outtakes that play over the end credits. The film exists in an array of versions including a Cantonese subtitled print, an early chop-socky quality English dub, and a cut-and-paste version from Miramax that has been re-scored and drastically trimmed but at least has Jackie dubbing his own voice.