Wily wild west gunslinger/gambler Dakota (Lee Van Cleef) blows a bank vault hoping to score some cash, but what he finds instead is a handful of photographs of sexy women baring their bottoms! It seems randy Chinese acupuncturist Old Wang (Ai Dung-Gwa) is travelling across America, tattooing the dimpled derrieres of his various foxy mistresses with portions of a treasure map. Whilst inking his newest paramour, Old Wang spies what Dakota is doing and rushes inside the vault just as the dynamite goes off. The local sheriff promptly arrests Dakota for murder. Meanwhile in China, the Manchurian government believe Old Wang died whilst misappropriating their money and threaten his family. Dynamic kung fu hero Wang Ho Chien (Lo Lieh) volunteers to head west and retrieve the fortune. He springs Dakota out of jail to assist his oddball quest as they ride the range in search of the right rump. In other words, to find the booty they must find the booty. Sorry, couldn’t resist…
Kung fu movies broke internationally at around the same time spaghetti westerns turned eccentric. The result were weird hybrids like Red Sun (1971), The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1972) and this kooky romp, all of which most likely influenced such latter-day east-meets-westerns as East Meets West (1995), Once Upon a Time in China & the West (1998) and of course Shanghai Noon (2000), although Nikkatsu Studios prefigured them all during the Fifties and Sixties when they cranked out many westerns with an all-Japanese cast.
Co-produced by Shaw Brothers and renowned Italian producer Carlo Ponti, The Stranger and the Gunfighter (also known as Blood Money) had a healthier budget than many non-Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. It’s a handsome production and in spite of atypically stilted pacing from Antonio Margheriti and a premise that grows repetitive quite quickly, retains a likeable comic book tone. Not least on account of its outrageous villain, the ridiculously named but deadly Yancey Hobbit (Julian Ugarte, the creepy Satanist from All the Colours of the Dark (1972)), a crazed preacher in black leather who has his own horse-drawn church! Hoping to fund his one-man crusade against sin in all its forms, he teams up with a Native American muscleman and trails the treasure hunters. The multi-exploitation premise encompasses another genre popular around this time - the sex comedy. In typical mid-Seventies fashion, the film doles out numerous saucy close-ups on such spirited Euro sex kittens as Italian horror regular Erika Blanc, American actress turned Spanish horror star Patty Shepard and Femi Benussi, who made a career out of flaunting her figure in choice trash items like Tarzana (1969) and Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975).
The film broaches the subject of racism, though not to the extent that The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe does, as Wang Ho confronts a sign that reads: “no negroes, no Chinese, no dogs.” This leads to an amusing gag wherein he strides into the saloon with a dog in his arms. For a refreshing change, the Chinese hero is not a clueless fish out of water but quite a sharp cookie, able to decipher the mechanics of a rigged roulette wheel. Plus there is the usual pleasure in watching Lo Lieh wipe the floor with gun-toting rednecks. Shaw Brothers’ Five Fingers of Death (1969) made Lo Hong Kong’s first international star, albeit for about five minutes until Bruce Lee came along.
Bruce may have become the icon, but Lo was the more versatile actor and probably had more fun in his career: canoodling scantily-clad sex kittens in Bamboo House of Dolls (1973), sporting a freaky Seventies wardrobe as a black magic pimp daddy with inflatable zombie girls in Black Magic Part 2 (1976), crimson spandex in the Shaw Brothers-Italian superhero romp Supermen Against the Orient (1974) and hopping about as a wacky practitioner of “frog style” kung fu in Little Dragon Maiden (1983). Lo immortalized the villainous white-haired monk Pai Mei in Shaw Brothers’ Executioners from Shaolin (1976) and his self-directed Clan of the White Lotus (1980) - the character later revived by his friend and co-star Gordon Liu in Kill Bill (2003) which was released shortly after Lo’s final role in the critically acclaimed art-house drama Glass Tears (2003).
Despite being dubbed with a high-pitched chop-suey accent, Lo shows his flair for comedy that would fully flower in his Eighties character roles. Notably when introducing Lee Van Cleef to the delights of snake flesh and rice wine. Van Cleef trades on his laconic cool but is given too little to do. Nevertheless, it’s nice work if you can get it. He pals around with a seemingly indestructible Chinese superman, looking at women’s asses and now and then shoots a few people. Van Cleef really had only one spaghetti western left, the oddball Israeli co-production God’s Gun (1976), but revived his trademark steely-eyed gambler/gunslinger persona in such incongruous Margheriti outings as Jungle Raiders (1985) and Codename: Wild Geese (1986), then returned to the martial arts fold in the short-lived TV series Ninja Master alongside such unlikely exponents of the art as Timothy Van Patten and Demi Moore. At least in Stranger… he breaks out his trusty machinegun for the exciting knockabout finale wherein Lo demonstrates his amazing ability to make the camera run in reverse as his backwards leaps bamboozle the Native American villain. It's thrilling stuff. There are amusing twists as Yancey’s plan to force Lo's girlfriend (Karen Yip Leng-Chi) to decipher the treasure map hits a stumbling block when the American born girl shyly admits she can’t read Chinese! The climactic revelation where Old Wang invested his money is another nicely humourous touch.