Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Black Falcon (Hong Kong, 1967)

I hadn't heard much that was good about The Black Falcon, the general consensus seeming to be that it paled in comparison to most of the other 1960s spy efforts turned out by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio. Given that, I was surprised to find that it was actually one of the most solidly plotted and engaging of the lot. I was even more surprised to discover that it was a close remake of Sergio Sollima's Eurospy film Passport to Hell, which was made just two years earlier.

Passport to Hell was obviously quite popular in Hong Kong during its day--or at least popular with the creatives at Shaw Brothers. The distinctive, projectile-firing compact used by Seyna Seyn in the film would show up in carbon copy as Lily Ho's signature weapon in the 1971 Shaw production The Lady Professional, and The Black Falcon, while omitting that particular gadget (perhaps they were saving it for later) plays Passport almost scene-for-scene. The original starred George Ardisson as a secret agent given the task of insinuating himself into the affections of an attractive young woman whose father is believed to be the head of a freelance spy organization known as "The Organization". Things ultimately turn out to be not quite as they seem, however, thanks to some internecine power struggles within The Organization staged in part by Seyn's character, the vicious and cunning Jackie Yen.

In The Black Falcon, Ardisson's character is portrayed by Paul Chang Chung, fresh from his lead role in the Shaw's wan Bond imitation The Golden Buddha, while Jenny Hu Yan-Ni plays the daughter of the supposed leader of The Organization--here called The Black Falcons--and Margaret Tu Chuan plays the femme fatale role originally essayed by Seyna Seyn. Passport to Hell is a standout in the Eurospy genre, in great part due to star Ardisson's commitment to some pretty intense and gritty physical action. Chang Chung steps up considerably in that regard, showing a vast improvement in his fighting skills in contrast to the lackluster display he put on in The Golden Buddha. Falcon even mirrors Passport's fight between Ardisson and the over-sized Dakar by pitting Chang Chung against the giant actor--and Shaw regular--Siu Gam in a brutal match-up.

Beyond that, most of Passport's major set pieces are represented here, from the bar scene featuring a weird arm wrestling match involving the contestants gripping a beer mug between them (though without Passport's groovy addition of having Kinks songs playing on the jukebox) to the scene in which two flatbed trucks attempt to sandwich Chang Chung's car between them. Of course, this being a Shaw spy film, director/screenwriter Daai Go-Mei also has to work in a space age secret lair for The Black Falcons and a silly, comic book-style supervillain outfit for Margaret Tu Chuan, even though those things are pretty much at odds with the otherwise relatively down-to-earth espionage plot laid out by the film's model. Still, the director, wisely hewing closely to the example set by the tightly-structured Passport, does a much better job at maintaining a persistent pace and coherent narrative thread than his colleague Lo Wei did in his own numerous contributions to Shaw's spy movie catalog.

So I'm going to style myself as a lone voice in the wilderness here and say that, despite what you may have heard about The Black Falcon, it really is worth checking out. And if you're a fan of Passport to Hell--or, for that matter, the Eurospy genre as a whole--I think you'll find a lot that's of interest in this Hong Kong take on the form.

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