The numerous international co-productions that Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio involved themselves in may not have resulted in many actually good motion pictures, but they certainly provided for some interesting juxtapositions. In 1974’s Supermen Against The Orient, for example, they result in us seeing the type of prodigiously mustached and bountifully blow-dried macho Mediterraneans you’d see in the typical Italian police thriller of the era running around on Shaw’s familiar Movie Town sets with the likes of Lo Lieh and Shih Szu. And to this I can only exclaim: “Hey, you got your cheesy 1970s Italian action movie in my classic SB martial arts film!” Now, whether these are two tastes that taste great together is another matter entirely.
Back in December, as part of my Italian Superhero Roll Call series, I reviewed the first of the Three Fantastic Supermen films, a long-running franchise of which Supermen Against The Orient is one subsequent part. While the debut entry featured Kommissar X’s Brad Harris and Tony Kendall in the leads, this one features a character by the name of Robert Malcolm, along with another named Antonio Cantafora and stuntman Sal Borgese (the lone constant in the Supermen films) in the titular roles. This was the Supermen film designed to cash in on the then red-hot kung fu craze, and the participation of Shaw guarantees, not only the presence of some familiar kung fu faces, but also action choreography that’s a cut well above that of most strictly Western passes at the genre.
Malcolm here plays FBI agent Robert Wallace, who is dispatched to Asia in order to locate six American agents who have been captured by the drug lord Chen Lo (Tung Lam). Wallace’s job doesn’t end up involving much in the way of investigation, this being the type of movie whose lazy plotting insures he need only sit in a darkened bar or nightclub long enough for some mysterious figure to surreptitiously hand him a note detailing exactly what he needs to do next. It is by this means that a completely superfluous travelogue sequence shot in Thailand is brought to a close, with Wallace jetting off to Hong Kong to meet with a kung fu master by the name of Tang (Lo Lieh). It turns out that two of Tang’s students are Max (Cantafora) and Jerry (Borgese), a pair of professional burglars who are old friends of Wallace’s -- though how such a relationship got skipped over during Wallace’s FBI screening I can’t imagine.
Predictably, Wallace ends up recruiting his two old pals to help him with his mission, less predictably promising to help them rob the safe at the American consulate in return. Under Tang’s tutelage, they begin to train for their coming confrontation with Chen Lo, a regime that involves much plunging of their extremities into braziers full of hot coals... and really not that much else, now that I think of it. (Don’t try this at home, aspiring kung fu masters.) Tang and his associate Lilly (Shih Szu) are ultimately revealed to be law enforcement agents themselves, and when the day of reckoning arrives, they too join in on the fun. It is at this point that Wallace produces his secret weapon, the bright red super suits we saw in the first film, which make their wearers indestructible. This time around there are enough suits available for Lo Lieh and Shih Szu to also wear them, and if I don’t say that this is probably the most ridiculous that Lo Lieh has ever looked, it is only because I am thinking of him riding around on that shark-launching palanquin in Zodiac Fighters.
I have to admit to finding the Three Fantastic Supermen films somewhat mysterious. Their sheer abundance seems to indicate that they were popular, though the basis of their popularity is hard to guess at. It certainly wasn’t star driven, since, aside from Borgese, they seldom featured the same leads from one entry to the next. Perhaps, then, it was the series’ central concept of normal men being rendered indestructible via the donning of super suits -- though, if it was, it’s hard to see why an installment like Supermen Against The Orient would give that concept such conspicuously short shrift, only having its heroes don those super suits during the movie’s final minutes.
It’s also a possibility that the serial replication of these films is the result less of audience demand than of the Italian film industry of the era simply turning its tendency to carbon copy back upon itself. In any case, I have to say that, to my tastes, the Three Fantastic Supermen series is not one that ages particularly well. While the abundance of swinging sixties style evident in the first film charmed me enough to make all the broad slapstick go down with relative ease, the mid 1970s, with all of its ugly clothes, music and design offers little by way of mitigation.
Not surprisingly, it is those parts of Supermen Against The Orient that most look like a Shaw Brothers film that end up being the most enjoyable -- for one thing because the familiar stars and surroundings bring back memories of countless other, much better films, but also because, thanks to the participation of Shaw’s fight choreographers, the action is fairly snappy and well staged. Sadly, in the spaces between, what we are most likely to find are repetitive comic relief sequences involving either Jacques Dufilho as a fey and high-strung American ambassador – sequences that include Nixon references that are seemingly intended to be funny merely by virtue of them being Nixon references – or Sal Borgese’s character Jerry.
As with Borgese’s character in the first film, Jerry is portrayed as a jabbering deaf-mute idiot -- and with a degree of sensitivity that should prove just as offensive to self-respecting idiots as to the hearing impaired. Still, given that the comedy in the Shaw Brothers’ films was itself not always of the most sophisticated variety, I guess it would be unfair for me to single out the Italians for censure in this regard. Nonetheless, it is not hard to suspect that it is in these aforementioned comedic scenes that writer/director Bitto Albertini – he of the unrelated Goldface, the Fantastic Superman and the even more unrelated Black Emanuelle – had the most free hand.
The final thing that I need to report to you about Supermen Against The Orient is that it has a theme song which is astonishing in its awfulness. I’m still undecided as to whether this is a strike against or in favor of the movie, because the truth is that, if I had the song on my iPod, I would most likely keep it on constant repeat, due to the fact that even multiple consecutive listenings would leave me in a state of stunned disbelief as to just how horrible it is. Given it’s one of those Italian movie themes that’s sung in English by a vocalist who doesn’t sound like he’s too familiar with the language, it’s difficult to make most of the lines out, but one of them is “I cream ‘em and ream ‘em, and then I redeem ‘em.” If the rest of Supermen Against The Orient had lived down to this level of badness, it might indeed have been something truly noteworthy. But, as is, it neither creamed nor redeemed me. Although it might have reamed me just a little bit
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