Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold [女金剛鬥狂龍女] (1975)

Starring Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Tanny Tien Ni, Norman Fell, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Chan Shen, John Cheung Ng-Long, Christopher Hunt, Lin Chen-Chi, Lau Luk-Wah, Eddy Donno, Bobby Canavarro

Directed by Chuck Bail

Expectations: Moderate.

Like just about every American movie set in Hong Kong, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold opens on a busy harbor full of junks and other ramshackle boats, scored with overtly “Oriental” music. The rest of the movie is also filled with all kinds of cliches and obvious story beats. Despite this, the movie rises above its trappings and manages to be quite an entertaining film. It exists in a gray area where the traditional American action film intersects with the Blaxploitation and kung fu genres, but only in the film’s incredible, lengthy finale does it ever really embrace any of those roots in a completely satisfying way. And it might just be my love of Hong Kong talking, but Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is better than the original, which I watched last week in preparation for this review.

The film’s story is probably its weakest element. Matthew Johnson (Albert Popwell) and Melvin Johnson (Caro Kenyatta) attempt to buy some product from drug lord Soo Da Chen (Chan Shen). Chen wants to do the deal behind the back of the big, bad Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens), who controls the illicit trade in the region, in a bid to undermine her power and potentially take over. Dragon Lady is too smart to let this happen, so she assaults the boat where the deal is happening, taking Matthew and Melvin hostage. Enter Cleopatra Jones, sent to Hong Kong to rescue them, and maybe take down the drug ring in the process. I honestly don’t remember if that was part of her assignment. In any case, that’s the whole plot; the rest of the movie just continues down that path, dealing with some obstacles that arise as Cleopatra makes her way through the Hong Kong underworld.

Like all the Shaw Brothers co-productions, the star is teamed with a Shaw star, in this case: Tanny Tien Ni, who plays Mi Ling Fong. The duo of Tanny Tien Ni and Tamara Dobson is fantastic; they complement each other’s screen presence and they have great chemistry. Of all the Shaw co-productions, this is easily the most successful pairing of actors and it makes the film feel more cohesive than it otherwise would have. It gave me something of a Tucker/Chan Rush Hour vibe, especially when they go a casino very similar to the one in Rush Hour 2! There aren’t many other Shaw stars in the movie, but John Cheung Ng-Long makes a strong showing as Mi Ling’s cohort and Chan Shen does provide some good moments as a minor villain.

The fighting in the original Cleopatra Jones is pretty horrendous, especially for a movie that boasts a Hapkido master as the film’s “Karate Teacher.” Thankfully, and unlike most of the Shaw co-productions, the influence and strength of the Shaw’s action choreographers is most definitely felt in this sequel. Tanny Tien Ni looks excellent in her scenes, although she may have been doubled in certain moments, and Tamara Dobson looks much more formidable than in the previous film. Choreographed by masters Tang Chia and Yuen Cheung-Yan, the kung fu hits hard and fast, but it’s actually the non-kung fu action that truly shines in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.

Outside of a lame car chase (especially compared to the awesome one in the original film, the best part of that film), the rest of the action is superb, incorporating all kinds of motorcycle stunts, high falls, explosions, gun fights, etc. These things happen all throughout the film, but the incredible finale packs them all together into one long and immensely satisfying scene that has to be seen to be believed. The stunt work is especially great, and it feels like the kind of stuff that would eventually evolve into the death-defying style that Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung perfected a few years later. For instance, in one fight Cleopatra Jones grabs a couple of dudes and jumps out a window with them. They all tumble out onto an awning below, roll onto another awning and then crash down onto the ground… all in one shot. It’s like Jackie Chan stuff before Jackie Chan!

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is a better movie than the original, even if it is fairly cliched and still somewhat sluggish in parts. The action more than makes up for this, though, and in the case of the nutso finale it elevates the film above anything it was previously. Oh, and if someone told me my love of Three’s Company and the Shaw Brothers would one day intersect by way of Norman Fell appearing in a Shaw film, I’d have called you crazy… but here we are! Definitely recommended to those inclined to like this sort of stuff.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a film I’ve wanted to see for many years, the directorial debut of Lau Kar-Leung: The Spiritual Boxer! See ya then!