One year after the end of the Vietnam War, the American military recruit Lieutenant Lam (Lam Ching Ying, of Mr. Vampire fame) to lead a Dirty Dozen-style suicide mission. Ten expendable Chinese criminals - including super-tough Tung Ming-Hsin (Sammo Hung), his chain-smoking buddy Wu (Corey Yuen Kwai), whiny Ching Dai-Ho (Billy Lau, another Mr. Vampire veteran) and his kind-hearted brother Ching Dai-Kong (Cheung Kwok-Keung), smooth-talking Szeto Chin (Taiwanese matinee idol Charlie Chin Chiang-Lin, in one of his last roles), and the aging “Grandpa” (legendary director Yuen Woo Ping) - are offered $20,000 and American citizenship if they destroy an abandoned arsenal before the missiles fall into enemy hands. As their plane circles the drop zone, word reaches Lam that their mission has been cancelled. But since his men have already parachuted behind enemy lines, Lam conceals the truth as they bound bravely into all-out jungle warfare.
As the most influential and prolific innovator in Hong Kong cinema, Sammo Hung has many a masterpiece to his name and Eastern Condors ranks high among his greatest achievements. It is also, alongside the John Woo obscurity Heroes Shed No Tears (1985), among the few notable Hong Kong war movies. Despite an opening scene where an incensed Lt. Lam helps inept G.I.s hoist the U.S. flag, seemingly calculated to imply one should never send Americans to do a Chinese job, the plot proves more morally complex and humane than one might expect and ably counterbalances frenetic action scenes with a disarming amount of pathos. Sammo combines the same high-octane action, intricate choreography, eloquent storytelling, outstanding camerawork (celebrated director of photography Arthur Wong pulls off some audacious visuals) and the emotional subtext that characterise his great martial arts movies, to impart his hard-bitten world-view that life is a hell from which characters continuously struggle. Despite their superhuman skills, these heroes are not Rambo clones. They are desperate, frightened men, driven to do insane things solely because they want a better life, although while others squabble Tung clings to a moral code. As Yuen Woo Ping’s character wryly remarks in one of the film’s many darkly comic/semi-poignant death scenes: “I have been hanging in there since I was born!”
Nowhere is this stark, survivalist message more apparent than in the subplots concerning two key characters. After parachuting into Vietnam, the camo-clad mercenaries are guided through the jungle inferno by three, lethally skilled female Cambodian guerrillas led by Australian-Chinese beauty queen Joyce Godenzi. Godenzi’s scene-stealing antics (all the more impressive considering she had no martial arts training prior to making this movie) scored her a devoted fan-following which she consolidated with femme fatale action flicks like Licence to Steal (1989) and She Shoots Straight (1990). Indeed Sammo was so smitten, he married her and they remain together to this day. Godenzi’s character is devoted enough to execute a childhood friend-turned-traitor, but upon realising the hidden arsenal could be used to aid the Cambodian cause, even she briefly turns on the Condor team. Another ambiguous antihero is Rat Chieh (Yuen Biao). Styled like a manga hero, riding a motorbike adorned with multicoloured balloons (?) and a tapedeck blasting Cantopop at eleven, his amazing acrobatic kung fu skills are rivalled only by Tung’s. Yet his heroic impulses (e.g. defending villagers from local extortionists) are counterbalanced by a pragmatic streak. He sells black market goodies to the locals and only joins up with Condors on the promise of a better life stateside. To that end, Chieh latches onto Yeung Leung (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the Cambodian activist and Oscar winner for The Killing Fields (1984)), a grinning simpleton who adds further plot quirks by knowing a lot more than anyone suspects. No matter how mercenary, Rat Chieh tries to be, he shares with Tung a nagging conscience derived from martial arts discipline that drives him to do the right thing. In many ways he proves the most significant character.
As an action film, Eastern Condors does not explicitly engage with the politics behind the Vietnam War but still paints a vividly bleak picture of life in a war zone. Desperation drives all. Peasants meekly acquiesce to strutting warlords. Children play Russian roullete. The whole jungle seemingly teems with things out to feed on each other and when nice guy Dai-Kong spares one little boy’s life, he is promptly stabbed to death. Of course it is the dynamic action that draws most people to this film and it certainly delivers. Most of the cast were seasoned directors and stunt choreographers in their own right and there is a sense all pooled their skills to deliver a great movie. Among the standout set-pieces: Sammo and Joyce Godenzi bursting out of the water in slow-motion like crocodile killers to despatch the Vietcong; Sammo slinging bamboo leaves like lethal flying darts (a skill he picked up from a local in the Philippines where the film was shot); Yuen Biao mowing more VC with his M-60 than the entire Marine Corps. The famously portly Sammo Hung put himself on a strict diet to make himself look more credible as a commando. Watching the newly svelte star bounce off steel rooftops like trampolines to take out a machinegun post or scuttle upside down from the treetops like Spider-Man is pure comic book fun.
This was a lavish Golden Harvest production with hitherto unheard of access to tanks, helicopters, impressive sets and pyrotechnics. Yet arguably its most memorable action scene is the final blistering, feet-and-fists battle between Sammo, Yuen and their childhood friend turned frequent co-star Yuen Wah, who plays an effete, hiccuping VC colonel whose goofy demeanour conceals kick-ass moves. It’s an action packed, angry, cynical film but one that ends on a wry note of hope. And several massive explosions. Sherman Chow Gam-Cheung contributes a marvellously moody score, although pop music connossieurs may hear spot some surprising cues lifted from the Ultravox hit “Vienna”!
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.