Four Riders [四騎士] (1972)
AKA Hellfighters of the East, Strike 4 Revenge
Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Ching Li, Yasuaki Kurata, Tina Chin Fei, Andre Marquis, Lo Dik, Lo Wai
Directed by Chang Cheh
On one hand, Four Riders wants to be a serious film about how G.I.s deal with the end of a war and what they do with themselves in its wake. But on the other hand, Four Riders wants to deliver all kinds of thrilling, ridiculous action that goes completely against the grain of realism. I expected the over-the-top action — how could I not when the DVD box reads: “…as a kung fu master, combat instructor, explosives expert, and missile specialist must take on a venal drug smuggling gang.” Reading that prior to watching the film really played with my expectations, as I imagined all sorts of mid-’80s action extravaganzas built on similar team-based premises. But this is all a misnomer, as Four Riders has nothing to do with what these men did while they were in the army.
The film opens in the snowy countryside of Korea. The year in 1953 and the Korean War has just come to a close. Chang Cheh spends the first few minutes of the film letting us take in the Korean landscapes, showing us the mountains, the gentle streams of snow water, and eventually the luscious green foliage of spring. This natural progression leads us to a military camp, where Ti Lung is currently stationed… but not for long. As his superior officer drives up, Ti rips off his stripes, throws them in the general’s face and proceeds to start a brawl. In the chaos he steals the boss’s jeep and heads off towards the urban fun of Seoul. The war is over, so he’s indulging his spontaneous, reckless spirit and making up for lost time.
Along the way to Seoul he picks up Wong Chung, a fun-loving soldier who seems a bit more straight-laced and reserved than Ti Lung. For those wondering, Wong was the explosives expert, but like I said that doesn’t matter. Anyway, Wong Chung is going to Seoul to meet up with an injured soldier friend in the hospital (Chen Kuan-Tai). Meanwhile, David Chiang — also a soldier — is spending every last dime getting drunk in a swanky bar called Hello John and schmoozing with one of the ladies of the night there (Lily Li Li-Li). The four men at the center of the tale are all interesting characters, and the film succeeds just on this point alone.
But as I mentioned this isn’t just a simple drama about four soldiers coping with returning to civilian life, it’s also an action movie. To facilitate this, our soldiers are pitted against a drug smuggling ring operated by a Japanese man (Yasuaki Kurata) and an American (Andre Marquis) out of Hello John! Their scam is pay returning G.I.s to smuggle dope home in their uniforms, but one thing leads to another and our soldiers end up clashing with the criminals.
So yeah, that’s basically three paragraphs to describe the plot alone, which is strange as it didn’t seem all that complicated when the film’s running. The film has a flowing quality to it that makes it very easy to watch, while also building its characters and developing a fairly twisting narrative. This is all well and good, but most of that character building doesn’t go much of anywhere, and the narrative just builds towards the expected end fight where all the good guys take on all the bad guys. Chang Cheh reaches for the artful side of cinema with the setting and the post-war soldiers, but I don’t feel like he did anything especially great with it. There’s also a valiant and really inspired attempt to liken the four soldiers to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but I honestly couldn’t see how the characters fit the bill… other than there were four of them and they brought an “apocalypse” of sorts to the drug smuggling ring. Perhaps I’m just not looking deep enough at their overt traits, but I just couldn’t connect War, Famine, Pestilence and Death with the four main characters.
That all being out in the open, though, Four Riders is ridiculously entertaining. The story might end in an obvious way for a Chang Cheh martial arts film to end, but the journey there is a delight. Just like his previous films shot in Thailand (Duel of Fists) and Japan (The Angry Guest), Four Riders features a lengthy travelogue-esque sequence as the characters ride into the film’s major city. As someone who hasn’t yet been overseas, I always relish these moments, even if they are especially necessary for the narrative. In addition to the main characters, the villains and the supporting characters are equally well-drawn, with Kurata and Marquis being especially effective in their roles.
But perhaps the most entertaining part is the multi-fight ending. While David Chiang takes on all comers at the Hello John bar, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai and Wong Chung do the same at a gymnasium. I can’t say that a barbell being swung around as a martial arts weapon is particularly realistic, but I can confirm that it is ridiculously entertaining. I also found it amusing that the gym featured a trampoline, with the fighters freely able to do their trampoline jumps with the trampoline in full view of the camera.
So while Four Riders might not hit the artistic strides that it felt like Chang Cheh was reaching for, it is an effective and entertaining film. It’s exceptionally well-shot and the Korean locations add an exotic fare that make it much different than your average Hong Kong movie. If you’re a fan of Chang Cheh, this is definitely a unique, under-the-radar film worth checking out.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Il-Ho’s The Thunderbolt Fist! See ya then!
Well, one thing that’s being overlooked is that its a grim, bleak film, from what I consider to be a pretty “dark” patch in Chang’s filmography, followed by the social despair of The Delinquent (although Kuei Chih-Hung is undoubtedly the director there) and the anti-brotherhood of The Blood Brothers. I agree the whole “Four Horsemen” metaphor doesn’t make much sense, but I think its contributes the “apocalyptic” atmosphere of the film. Ditto the opening and closing, which are both meant to be completely metaphoric.
And those two final fights are good. The gym one, in particular, almost anticipates the early ’80s style of fight scenes: placing a fight in a peculiar settings, then have the fighters make full use of the environment and its props.
Yeah, I guess it is fairly bleak, but I feel like it’s a hard film to take completely seriously so I didn’t really feel that dark of a tone. That gym fight is definitely a forerunner of those ’80s location-based fights, and a whole lot of fun.
Well, it’s still a Shaw film! At a certain point, you learn to notice when there’s something unusually dark in all the genre goofiness and candy-colored aesthetic. I find the film’s atmosphere of post-war ennui and smash-and-grab greed to be unusually pointed. And in a filmography full of tragic endings, that finale is a particularly bitter gutpunch.
I guess the perfect encapsulation of the film’s tone is the whole plotline with the bargirls: for a moment, the movie turns into the cheesiest type of sex comedy. Then things get real. Too real.
Yeah, I know Shaw films have their inherent, dated goofiness, but there’s been a lot of Shaw films that manage to achieve a dark tone throughout despite this. Maybe it’s just me, but this one felt more over the top than I thought was believable for the setting. Perhaps it’s just the modern setting which brings in the goofy set design that ruined the serious mood, although I hate to say that because I genuinely enjoy that kind of stuff in these films.