Supermen Against the Orient (1974)

supermenagainsttheorient_1Supermen Against the Orient [Crash! Che botte… strippo strappo stroppio, 四王一后] (1974)
AKA Three Supermen Vs The Orient, Three Fantastic Supermen in the Orient

Starring Robert Malcolm, Antonio Cantafora, Salvatore Borghese, Lo Lieh, Shih Szu, Tung Lam, Alberto Farnese, Jacques Dufilho, Isabella Biagini, Kong Ling, Lau Wai-Ling, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chan Ho

Directed by Bitto Albertini (with an uncredited assist from Kuei Chi-Hung)

Expectations: Super low.

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No one expects to like every movie they watch, but I generally enjoy most Shaw Brothers films, even the ones that don’t really capture me. I have enough affection for the studio, its stars, and its production style to get me through a boring film. For better or worse, that’s how it is. So it’s surprising when I run into one that I pretty much hate. To be fair, there are some things that I liked about this co-production with Italy’s INDIEF, but overall Supermen Against the Orient has to be one of the worst Shaw films I’ve seen. At least it’s only barely a Shaw Brothers movie, which is partly why it didn’t play well for me.

In 1967, Gianfranco Parolini directed The Three Fantastic Supermen, and it was so popular that it spawned an entire franchise. I’ve heard of them, but this is the first I’ve seen. From what I can tell, it’s a loose series, swapping out characters and actors regularly, but there is a core framework that remains constant. Similar to James Bond, our main character is an FBI Agent who is sent to far-off exotic locales to thwart some kind of devious behavior. Along the way he teams up with a pair of well-meaning thieves who possess bulletproof super suits, and together they all save the day from the bad guys. This vague description of the formula can also serve as a plot description for Supermen Against the Orient, since none of the specifics about the villains or what they’re doing actually matter. There’s a drug deal and some kidnapped people, but I couldn’t tell you much else about why everything was happening.

supermenagainsttheorient_15The locales, though, are seemingly what defines each film in the franchise. In this one, the FBI Agent travels to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and we go right along with him, travelogue style (with the exception of Taiwan, which seemed to be just a bunch of Shaw sets). Local flavor colors the film, so while he’s in Bangkok he goes to a Muay Thai match, he rides in a boat past the famous floating markets, he sees some elaborate temples, etc. The Hong Kong section is less touristy, but if you dig the idea of catching glimpses of Hong Kong in the early ’70s there’s a lot of that mixed in with the Shaw studio sets. This is probably the best thing going for the movie.

supermenagainsttheorient_8There’s some action throughout, but it would be wrong to expect an action movie. Above all it’s a comedy, and your enjoyment will hinge almost completely on your sense of humor. Supermen Against the Orient is over-the-top, absurd and far outside of reality, but also not really weird enough to be funny. It’s hard to describe. For instance, there’s a sequence where the FBI agent needs to learn kung fu, but he just lazily performs the practice forms, out of step and clueless. I guess it was supposed to be funny how inept he was? I don’t know; I just groaned and shook my head more than anything else. The fart humor was the most successful, centering on the American Consul, one of the strange supporting characters that was otherwise just manic and unfunny.

supermenagainsttheorient_19The Consul performs some kung fu to impress our hero, but this effort forces a fart out, to which he says, “Kung fu’s like a laxative. It’s like I said: Everything comes from inside.” The same character later needs to use the restroom, and he practices violin while on the toilet so the men outside won’t hear whatever noises might naturally occur. Like I said, this isn’t great comedy, and even these examples of what worked only make me realize how desperate I was for something to laugh at. Looking through Bitto Albertini’s filmography I see he also directed the horrific Return of Shanghai Joe… wish I would’ve known that beforehand so I could’ve strapped a block of C4 to my low expectations and completely obliterated them.

supermenagainsttheorient_13The film’s action doesn’t fare much better, but the presence of Shaw stars Lo Lieh and Shih Szu help soften the blow considerably. I’m a big fan of both, and while this is FAR below even their mediocre films, they’re still fun to watch. Perhaps fans of the Supermen series would disagree, but I can only offer my experience as a Shaw fan. Anyway, the action is pretty limited, but it is of a fair-enough quality to pass the time with. There are lots of Enter the Dragon-style first-person fighting shots, which bugged me in that movie and continued to bug me here. It seems like more of a way to hide shoddy choreography or a lack of knowledge in directing action scenes than anything else. The fights look a lot older and sloppier than other 1974 films, too, but I doubt anyone watching this expects the top-of-the-line quality of Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia!

supermenagainsttheorient_17The choreography is notable regardless of its quality, though, because good ol’ Jackie Chan was the choreographer! At this point in his career, he had made The Cub Tiger from Kwangtung, choreographed a few other films, and worked as an extra/stuntmen in a few more. I bet no one could have expected that in less than five years from this dreadful film, he’d be a box office superstar with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master! Supposedly, he also cameos in the film, but I didn’t see him so I’ll just make do with this production still.

supermenagainsttheorient_23Supermen Against the Orient was painful to sit through, but at least it ends with a marginally fun action sequence where all the heroes (Lo Lieh and Shih Szu included) wear the bulletproof superhero tights (or as the film called them: long johns). But even Shaw stars in campy superhero suits is not nearly enough to erase the memory of the “comedy” and the distinct lack of any kind of Shaw Brothers feel. I enjoyed the odd 50/50 mix of sensibilities in both Virgins of the Seven Seas and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but the ratio here is probably like 95% Italian/5% Shaw. Booooo!

Oh, and apparently Kuei Chi-Hung was the Chinese co-director on this one as well, but unlike Virgins of the Seven Seas, not even a glimmer of his style or talent is evident. Again: Booooooo!

No trailer, but “enjoy” the film’s unique theme song!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the directorial debut of Ti Lung, Young Lovers on Flying Wheels! Hopefully it’s a lot better than this movie was! See ya then!

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