Sunday 8 January 2012

Devil Dynamite (1987)

Director: Godfrey Ho
Stars: Mack Stuart, Walter Bond, Richard Phillips, Ted Wald, Eddie Leo and Mark Coston

A year before Robo Vampire, one of the most awesomely bad movies ever filmed, Hong Kong mashup maestro Godfrey Ho was at it again with Devil Dynamite. It has everything you could possibly want from a Godfrey Ho movie and more, if you're into that sort of thing. Most people aren't but Ho has become a surprising cult figure in film, perhaps because of the sheer blatancy he exhibited in patching his pictures together. He made over a hundred movies, but a pretty large percentage of the footage came from other Asian movies that he'd possibly bought the rights to, many of which hadn't been finished or released. Into this footage he'd splice newly shot scenes that only rarely pretended to have anything to do with the story at hand. In many ways they're just videos for ninja fetishists, people who believe that anything would be better if only it had a couple of colour coded ninjas. I'm not one of them but I'm building similar fetishes.

Needless to say, it's completely awful, but if you've seen Godfrey Ho movies before and you're stlil reading this then you're not going to care. This one is also courteous enough to get down to awesomeness even while the opening credits roll. A Taoist priest shows how awesome he is by juggling fire and leaping through a kata, but the token westerner with a beard, Ronald by name, renders him ineffective with a mere voodoo doll. The priest can't complain because Ronald is his boss for whom he's managing four hopping vampires or jiangshi. He's a particularly cut rate sort of boss for this sort of scenario but we should never forget that this is a Godfrey Ho movie. He's white and he has a beard, which is more than enough to make him a villain. I could have had a great career as a villain in Godfrey Ho movies. My beard is bigger, for a start, and I could easily manage scenes as complex as chuckling and asking henchmen to bring in new victims.

Meanwhile, outside are ninjas, leaping around in the dark. What sort of Godfrey Ho movie could it be without ninjas? Their job is to eliminate Steven Cox who, inconveniently for them, has just been released after ten years in prison, so they don't find him there. They slice up some of his fellow prisoners just because, but get promptly wiped out by the hopping vampires. It's all a test, you see. 'Vampires are undoubtedly the ultimate in efficient fighting killers,' explains the Taoist priest. 'No-one's able to stop them,' he adds, as he stops them with the traditional talisman to the forehead. Jiangshi fans can't complain about a lack of action here, and it continues with an attack on a restaurant, apparently to interrupt a couple of diners who want to explain to us who Steven Cox is. Unfortunately for the hopping vampires, one is a kung fu master called Tony and the other is Alex, who can instantly turn into a spaceman in a silver suit. I didn't see that coming.

I'd wondered about the Chinese RoboCop in Robo Vampire and I wondered here how a Chinese guy with an English accent can suddenly transform into a refugee from an Intel clean room. No explanation is offered and nobody seems to find it remotely unusual. Why would anyone ask? Well, as I discovered last night as Oriental Cinema's Damon Foster celebrated 30 years of metal heroes with a few key episodes of Space Sheriff Gavan, that this was an entire genre. This was a Japanese TV show that featured a lead character who could don a battle suit in a thousandth of a second through the aid of bizarrely explained technology and fight evil, and it inspired countless followers. RoboCop had a western storyline but was obviously inspired by the metal heroes from Japan and Godfrey Ho simply ripped off the ripoff. Asian audiences in 1987 couldn't avoid metal heroes so needed no explanation for why Alex can transform at will into Shadow Warrior.
Eventually we find out what the point of all this is. Steven Cox is a solid hero, a gambling king with a hidden treasure who knows kung fu and can dodge daggers thrown in the dark. However a decade ago he was betrayed by his lover, Madame Mary, the local queen of the underworld, who runs all the gambling in town and surely can't have been legal ten years earlier. Now she's trying to marry a cop called Louis who doesn't ever seem to work. Somewhere within this story is the gold, but I still haven't figured out how even after two viewings. Madame Mary knows where it is but doesn't go to get it, even though she put Cox away for a decade. What's more, he seems somehow surprised when she decides to do something about it. It almost seems that putting him in prison and sending hopping vampires to kill him is OK, but going after his gold after ten years of ignoring it is beyond the pale. Maybe it's just the inscrutable oriental mind at work.

More likely, it's just Godfrey Ho not paying too much attention to what he patched together. Like that's a surprise. Certainly this feels like it's all from two completely different movies, which of course it was. Brian Thomas, author of VideoHound's Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks suggests that the half with Madame Mary, Louis and Steven Cox may be taken from Stunning Gambling, a 1982 Taiwanese picture. If it is, then it may even be the second time Godfrey Ho reused footage from that film, as in the year it came out he apparently edited it into Ninja, the Violent Sorceror as well. The other half of the picture, featuring all the other characters and all the supernatural elements, may or may not be entirely new but it's hard to tell. It makes so little sense that there may be multiple sources here too. Only Steven Cox makes it to both sides, but rarely and in dark scenes where I can't be convinced he's even played by the same actor.

Needless to say, logic takes a back seat so far in the back that it's out of sight. Of course I'm not going to expect logic in a Godfrey Ho picture, but some scenes come completely out of nowhere. About half an hour in there's a truly bizarre scene where zombie ninjas attack a children's party with a ghost girl and a fake hopping vampire kid. Enter Shadow Warrior from the ether, exit any semblance of sanity. In its place is the sort of disconcerting 'What did I just see?' moment where we wonder if someone changed the laws of physics and didn't feel it was worthy of mention. It's not often I have to rewind a movie to watch a scene again to confirm to my brain that I saw what I thought I saw, but this was definitely one of those. I couldn't even figure out exactly why some of what happens happens. Sure, I now understand the metal hero thing, but there seems to be a conspicuous Michael Jackson influence too. This metal hero moonwalks. Was I dreaming?

Of course, this is what draws a certain type of audience to Godfrey Ho movies to begin with, so we'd be disappointed if he didn't deliver. Devil Dynamite is short on sense but long on awesome. It's mostly free from the fatal flaw of many of his films, namely talky scenes inducing boredom. Instead it keeps up a steady supply of hopping vampires, ninjas, kung fu and blissfully surreal Taoist sorcery. I've long been a sucker for jiangshi, but the sparkling acupuncture conjurations the priest performs here to aid their recovery from battle led me to believe that every movie should contain a scene of Taoist sorcery. I guess it took me this long to realise that it's what Gone with the Wind was really lacking! I think I could watch a Nicolas Cage movie without crying if only there was Taoist sorcery to distract me! If only Michael Bay could learn from Godfrey Ho! The Ed Wood of Asia was never coherent but he instrinsically understood insane awesomeness.

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