Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The latest Fast & Furious movie has been pushed back a full year, so why not cope with its absence by checking out some other movies with car chases in them?
“High speed car chase sequences on open highways—without any traffic control, without police permission, without anything. We just shot ’em.” That’s one of the makers of The Man From Hong Kong, reminiscing about the production in Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary detailing the Ozploitation cinema of the ’70s and ’80s. Another pipes in: “We saw people hit by cars, and they’d just pick ’em up, say, ‘You alright? Here, have a VB mate, you’ll be alright, just stand there but make sure you get out of the way a little earlier.’” Today, such a flagrant disregard for the safety of cast and crew would never be tolerated on a film set, and for good reason. But the sense of danger is real in the movie—and coupled with the knowledge that no one did get seriously injured, it makes for one hell of an entertaining action vehicle.
The Man From Hong Kong blends the conventions of a James Bond thriller with chop-socky action, and does so with a single-minded commitment to fast-paced fun that keeps it lively and watchable even during some of the sillier narrative interludes. The story is beyond simple: Elite Hong Kong detective Fang Sing Leng (Chinese martial-arts star Jimmy Wang Yu) travels to Sydney to extradite a drug dealer (played by the film’s famed fight choreographer, Sammo Hung), only to end up punching and kicking his way up the criminal food chain to crimelord Jack Wilton (one-time Bond himself, George Lazenby). Along the way, Fang crosses paths with assassins, local cops, and a seemingly endless parade of low-level goons just waiting to have their asses handed to them. He also manages to sleep with a few women in between the kung-fu dust-ups.
Director Brian Trenchard-Smith has amassed quite the filmography over the years, including helming multiple cult classics (BMX Bandits, Dead End Drive-In, The Quest, two of the Leprechaun movies), but Man From Hong Kong might be his most purely enjoyable, as breezy as the winds that carry Fang’s hang-glider to the rooftop of Wilton’s villainous compound at the film’s finale. It’s rare that more than a few minutes go by without someone sent flying through a window, or high-kicked against a wall. There’s a dry sense of humor here, subtler than the usual corny one-liners that populate these types of films (though there’s plenty of those, too, some of them containing cringeworthy racial humor). A terrific prison-set fight scene in which Hung and Yu’s characters throw down features wry editing, a kick in the crotch cutting directly to a shot of the local cops across the street breaking billiards. The Aussie journalist Fang seduces is doing a story on hang-gliding (or “kite-flying” in her words), and apparently Trenchard-Smith is a big fan, because he inserts numerous tracking shots of the activity over characters delivering exposition, presumably because it’s more fun to watch than people talking. And be careful of any car that overturns in this film. A second later, it’s going to explode into a giant fireball.
But the stuntwork, practical effects, and choreography are the real draw. Knowing the near-total lack of safety precautions behind the scenes isn’t required to marvel at the sight of a guy free-climbing a metal pipe nearly eight stories up the side of a building, or to witness an actor of Lazenby’s stature very clearly allowing himself to be set on fire, with nary a stunt double in sight. And the climactic car chase ripples with “Oh, dear god, they’re really doing that” excitement, cars flipping and slamming into each other with abandon. They might seem slow-moving in comparison to the high-speed precision stunt work of today’s Hollywood mega productions, but there’s a sense of fraught risk that’s missing from more modern films, a willingness to tempt grievous injury that lends it all a frisson of intensity and anxiety. At one point, early on, one of the many exploding cars blows up and the driver’s-side door goes flying toward a camera hundreds of feet away. It’s the kind of dumb-luck practical effect that can really only be done digitally in today’s CGI-aided action. But The Man From Hong Kong kicks, punches, and yes, blows up automobiles real good en route to its conclusion. By the time Yu is sliding down a skyscraper, attached only to a single rope, the film has made its point: What’s more compelling than death-defying action cinema that’s really, truly defying death?