Have you ever sat down to watch Three Days of the Condor (1975) and found yourself thinking, this would be so much better with random kung fu and soft-core porn scenes thrown in every few minutes? Well, obscure martial arts triple-threat John Liu made just the movie for you with In the Claws of the C.I.A. a.k.a. Ninja in the Claws of the C.I.A. (though the hero is not a ninja) a.k.a. Kung Fu Emmanuelle, on account of copious, often hilarious soft-core action. Nicknamed "Flash Legs" on account of his lethal kicks, John Liu found cult stardom in kung fu flicks like The Secret Rivals (1972) and Incredible Kung Fu Mission (1979). In the Claws of the C.I.A. was one of three films Liu wrote, directed and distributed through his own production company.
Oddly, the film kicks off with a gun battle showcasing Danny Lee, star of Super Infra-Man (1975) and The Killer (1989), one suspects was spliced from a different movie. The story proper begins with a political assassination that spurs martial arts trained C.I.A. agent Sanders (Christian Anders) to seek help from his prank-loving Chinese sifu, Mr. Chan (Gam Biu). Too busy frolicking poolside with bikini babes (and, somewhat unsettlingly, speedo-clad boys too!), Chan steers Sanders in the direction of John Liu. Seemingly portraying himself, Liu is an embittered Vietnam war veteran turned world champion kung fu master and movie star who has developed his own unique fighting style called Zen Kwan Do.
Through a ridiculously convoluted set-up involving real life Playboy Playmate Yolanda Egger posing as a tantalizing damsel in distress in a very skimpy bikini, Sanders attempts to entrap John into training an elite martial arts unit for the C.I.A. At first our hero sensibly refuses but is won over by the star-spangled patriotism of his crippled twin brother (?!) James (John Liu again) who still proudly serves the military. So John joins the C.I.A. at a secret base where he sparks up a soft-focus, soft-core romance with intelligence operative Caroline (Spanish horror regular Mirta Miller) and sets about training unlikely field agents Johnny (chop-sockey favourite Casanova Wong) and Susan, who keeps wandering around in her underwear making less than subtle passes at our stoic lead. In a frankly none too easily deciphered sub-plot, wacky Mr. Chan keeps an undercover agent spying on various bizarre C.I.A. training techniques including electro-shock therapy. When this agent threatens to quit Chan fakes his own death which somehow spurs the would-be turncoat to get back on the job. When John discovers the C.I.A. are using radio-waves to turn their men into kill-crazed psychos, or in Susan's case a ravenous nympho who dry-humps a tree, he and Carolyn go on the run with a case full of secret files.
Unfortunately John and Caroline choose the scenic route via yacht so they can shag on deck unaware of an ambush by frogmen assassins. It's a fatal goodbye for Caroline. When John reaches Paris, France (with a scene of him practicing Zen Kwan Do moves in front of the Eiffel Tower, just to prove he really did film there), he abruptly becomes guardian to Caroline's hitherto unmentioned little daughter, beating up would-be assassins whilst the adorable imp cries: "Punch him out, Uncle John!" Before we can get our heads around that plot twist another abrupt jump-cut introduces yet another love interest in foxy French chick Gisete (Raquel Evans) who has yet another kid, this time a boy, equally enamoured with Uncle John. Inept C.I.A. agents attempt to kidnap Gisette and her son but are foiled by a trio of Chinese female martial arts experts wearing identical jade jumpsuits. Who the hell are they? God knows. Gorgeous Gisete straddles John Liu for yet another sex scene whereupon, having sated fans of gratuitous nudity, she and her equally anonymously glamorous friend take a bullet. That's two children orphaned in one movie. Nice going, John. A distraught John promptly hides in a trailer park where he befriends yet another little boy (watch out, kid!), disguises himself as his twin and eventually faces off with evil agent Pascho (real-life karate champion Roger Paschy) and the rest of the C.I.A. in a surprisingly impassioned, suspenseful finale that incorporates tasteless mondo footage of a real air crash and a quote from Casablanca (1942).
In the Claws of the C.I.A. hails from an odd period in Hong Kong cinema when the industry was making an awkward transition from the lavish yet increasingly starchy productions of the Shaw Brothers era and the slicker contemporary works exemplified by brash Eighties studios like Cinema City, Golden Harvest and D&B Films. A lot of strange, cheap and cheerful chop-sockey indie efforts popped up in the interim with John Liu's surreal vanity project among the most bizarre. Fans familiar with his earlier opus, Zen Kwan Do Strikes Paris (1979) wherein John's NASA scientist father is kidnapped by enemy agents, will know better than to take the supposedly autobiographical plot (!) at face value. It is a ridiculous albeit compellingly odd mish-mash of a movie mixing spy thriller clichés, bizarre attempts at comedy, comic book science fiction, silly sex scenes and shameless steals from Enter the Dragon (1973) and even The Dirty Dozen (1967) as badass military man John whips his young team into shape including hilarious hippie Casanova Wong. Yet at the same time Liu mounts a disarmingly sincere satirical exposé of strange C.I.A. training techniques and dirty tricks not too dissimilar from some scenes in The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009).
Of course one of the more questionable aspects of the satire is how oddly obsessed the C.I.A. are with testing John Liu's sex drive. Their inexplicable efforts culminate in a near-legendary scene where John uses his mystical mastery of Tai Chi to restrain himself while Susan performs fellatio. Running a close second is the scene where a brain-washed Johnny rebuffs John's gift of a cute pet bunny whereupon his squad rip the poor rabbit to pieces. Yikes. Liu's haphazard direction seems to suffer from A.D.D. and renders the would-be complex plot into an incomprehensible blur. Trash film fans will likely feel satisfied as his camera leers at every scantily-clad Playboy playmate that happens by and frames the odd arresting action scene. For all the film's other failings, both Liu's impressive athletic prowess and that of co-star Casanova Wong are well showcased. Note Pasco's odious defense of agency tactics: "When brave men are fighting to protect democracy, the occasional innocent gets caught in the crossfire." To which John Liu responds with a righteous slow-motion kick in the face. Beat that, Redford.