Monday, June 11, 2018

Fantasy Mission Force (Taiwan, 1983)

I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but I think that, when reviewing Fantasy Mission Force, the first thing that needs to be said is that it is clearly a comedy. I think most people would agree with this, though some (you know who you are) would prefer to ignore that fact and skip right to talking about how crazy, awful, or crazy and awful it is. That’s tantamount to showing a Chinese citizen Anchorman and telling them it’s a drama.

Which isn’t to say that Fantasy Mission Force isn’t crazy. It takes place in a world beyond the dimensions of time and space—and, if coherence is a dimension, that too. Sharing a director, Yen-Ping Chu, with Pink Force Commandos and the Shaolin Popey movies, it is a certified work of Weird Fu, though one with an unusual pedigree thanks to its absurdly top-loaded cast. This includes Jimmy Wang-yu, Brigitte Lin, Adam Cheng, Pearl Chang Ling and-- the primary reason that many people who might otherwise have ignored this film have seen it—Jackie Chan.

How Jackie Chan came to be in Fantasy Mission Force is the stuff of cult movie legend, and, like most cult movie legends, the likelihood that it is largely apocryphal is high. As the story goes, Chan starred in the film as a way of returning a favor to its producer and star, Wang Yu. Producer Lo Wei, angry that Chan had left his company for Golden Harvest, had allegedly ordered Triad thugs to put the hurt on Chan, who appealed to Wang Yu to use his alleged “connections” to circumvent that beating, which Wang Yu did, allegedly. You got all that? The thing is that, like all the best cult movie legends, it is entirely plausible. It is also an ironically grim backstory for a movie as unabashedly goofy as Fantasy Mission Force to have.

FMF reminds me a lot of Bollywood masala movies like Dharam Veer for how, in its eagerness to engorge itself with as many crowd-pleasing elements as possible, it completely ignores the intricacies of period. In Dharam Veer, that results in a world where gladiators, pirates, knights in shining armor, and gypsies all maintain an uneasy coexistence. In Fantasy Mission Force it results in a version of World War II in which the Nazis dress like extras from The Road Warrior and drive swastika-emblazoned muscle cars.

The movie takes place in a sort of Rorschach test version of war-torn Asia that could be literally anywhere and nowhere at once. As it starts, we see a quartet of military Generals--one French, one British, one African, and one American—-being taken captive by the Japanese. When the American is asked to identify himself, he sternly replies “General Abraham Lincoln!” If you are someone who needs your movies to make sense, this sequence will shout an immediate warning to you to either let go of that entirely or stop watching.

Yet you’re still watching, aren’t you? Such is the fatal allure of Fantasy Mission Force’s giddy stream of nonsense. And now you’re watching a scene in which the top brass of What-the-fukistan are looking at slides of Roger Moore’s James Bond, Snake Plisken from Escape From New York, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, and Brigitte Lin’s character from Golden Queen’s Commandos. None of these completely fictional beings, one of them announces, is available to head a rescue operation. This alerts us that the characters they do choose for the operation will be just as much fictional archetypes as those just mentioned, that the force is as much, or more of a fantasy than the mission. Thus FMF is, step by step, laying the groundwork for it to do whatever the fuck it wants narratively—all while worrying at old wounds by making the Japanese occupiers its villains and ensuring that it’s redemptive violence will provide easy catharsis for its audience.

Anyway, it is determined that the man for the job is Wang Yu’s Captain Wen, who is then shown careening around in a jeep, casually firing a machine gun one-handed as extras dutifully fall on all sides of him. Just like in The Dirty Dozen (and also The Wizard of Oz) Wen wastes no time in assembling a band of roguish ne’er-do-wells to join him. Sun (Sun Yueh) is a hobo and master thief. Greased Lightning (Frankie Koh) is an escape artist. Lily (Brigitte Lin) is a gunslinger with a score to settle against her caddish ex-beau Billy (David Thao), who is also along for the mission. Hui Bat-Liu and Fong Ching are members of the Scottish Guard and also (I think?) gay.

Finally, there is Sammy, played by Jackie Chan, an exhibition fighter from New York who bills himself as “The Chinatown Strongman”. Now, before you get excited about all the great martial arts sequences that are about to unfold, let me tell you that Chan is here mainly for comic relief purposes that make use of his gift for slapstick. In the English dub, his bumbling character is even given the whiny, simpering voice (“Master!”) that is usually reserved for Hui Bat-Liu. To complicate matters, Hui Bat-Liu is also given that voice, which suggests that the whiny, simpering voice actor really got a workout on this film.

Indeed, given the array of talent at it's disposal, FMF really doesn't provide us with much in the way of hand-to-hand combat, preferring to fall back on gunplay and explosions instead. Brigitte Lin alone is provided with any kind of showcase, while the awesome Pearl Chang, playing Chan's manager, is given none, and is relied on mainly for her irascible comedic persona. Even a confrontation between Chan and Wang Yu consists mostly of Wang Yu trying to crush Chan with an earthmover as Chan wheels around in a car. My friend and podcast co-host Kenny B suggested that this was perhaps because the producers weren't willing to fork out for the kind of insurance that would allow their stars to throw down in earnest.

Anyway, once the team is assembled, it’s time for a couple of completely random digressions. First, the gang finds themselves captured by a tribe of amazons who are, by all appearances, ruled over by a tuxedo-clad Adam Cheng. Though this might seem like a detail worth examining, it is completely dropped once the Force frees themselves from the amazons and blow up their island as a way of saying goodbye. Next they spend the night in a haunted house filled with hopping vampires and mah-jongg playing ghosts.

If you have by now concluded that Fantasy Mission Force is essentially the honey badger of movies, you are absolutely right. And for all those who revel in the many fucks it does not give about being a conventional movie, there are an equal number of people who are enraged by it, insulted, even—thus its online reputation for being the Worst Jackie Chan Movie EVER.

Personally, I think that comprehension-defying films like Fantasy Mission Force provide a crucial service to serial movie consumers like me, in that they challenge our expectations, expand our idea of what a movie can be and, most importantly, open our minds. Of course, for that to happen, one must respond to the first of its many demands on our suspension of disbelief with a hearty “fuck yes!"


Ben said...

Thanks for a highly entertaining review Todd. I've wondered at the legend of this movie for many years, but have never actually dared to try to watch it. Given that that "master master" voice actor guy is usually vying with assorted world leaders for the position of "person I most desperately wish to punch in the face" however... I might wait a little bit longer. What do you think our chances are of ever hearing an original language track plus subs..?

Meanwhile, I think I recall reading speculation elsewhere that this film was actually *bankrolled* by the Triad, and that the higher profile stars were coerced into appearing in an offer-you-can't-refuse type manner. It probably says something about the rumours surrounding Hong Kong/Taiwan cinema that I'm not sure whether that or the version of the story you've presented here sounds more plausible.

Tars Tarkas said...

This is one of my favorite movies ever and I've declared it part of a group of films that are set in the same history-mashup universe, including the above-mentioned Golden Queens Commando, Pink Force Commando, and Challenge of the Lady Ninja and Island Warriors. You can even expand this Taiwaniverse into the past with Polly Shang Kuan's goofy films and Pearl Cheung Ling's amazing flicks. It's all connected, people!

::is carted away by the police and the shot reveals the walls are covered with movie titles and strings connecting them::