War movies have never been big in Hong Kong. It may have to do with the fact that Hong Kong has no military of its own and has never been involved in a modern war, or it may be that Western-style war movies don't have as much of an audience in Asia, so they don't seem as attractive to Hong Kong studios eager to export films to all nearby nations. There have been war movies made in Hong Kong, of course, such as John Woo's Bullet in the Head, but none of them have been big hits.
Eastern Condors, therefore, is probably the best war movie Hong Kong has ever produced. It follows the patterns already established by the classics of the U.S. war movie, incorporating elements from both WWII movies and Vietnam movies. Watching it, you will see more or less direct homages to (or rip-offs from) The Dirty Dozen, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Rambo: First Blood Part 2, amongst others. At the same time the movie features the style and energy, not to mention the kung fu fights, we have come to expect from Hong Kong action cinema.
Eastern Condors has a Hong Kong all-star cast, including Samo Hung, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Woo Ping, Joyce Godenzi (former Miss Hong Kong and future Mrs. Samo Hung), and Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor . The plot is of course designed to allow everyone of these actors to have at least one 'big' moment, even if it is when they die.
The movie opens at a military base in the United States (played by Canada) where Lt. Col. Lam has received top secret orders. It seems that when the US pulled out of Vietnam, we left behind a secret missile stash behind. Now the US wants the stash destroyed before the Vietcong find it and use it for their own purposes. Because this mission is so dangerous, Col. Lam has to assemble a team made up of illegal immigrants who have been arrested and jailed for major crimes like murder. Each prisoner is told that if they get back from the mission alive, they will receive a pardon, a ticket to wherever they want to go, and $200,000.
Even though the prisoners are loaded on to the plane without knowing what the mission is, the smart one (the one with glasses) figures out that they are over Vietnam. It doesn't take long before the mission starts to go wrong. Half of the makeshift squad parachutes out of the plane before Col. Lam finds out that US command has canceled the mission. Being an upstanding kind of guy, though, Col. Lam parachutes anyway, because he refuses to cut anybody loose behind enemy lines, even criminals.
Call me a Giggling General, will you?
Soon after landing and hooking up with three female Cambodian rebels, the squad is forced to take refuge in a small town. There they meet Rat, a budding capitalist played by Yuen Biao, and his mentally deranged "brother" Yueng, played by Haing Ngor. They end up tagging along with our heroes.
From this point on the squad ends up running through a laundry list of the bad things that can happen to a bunch of guys with guns in Vietnam: They get captured an put in a POW camp (complete with Deer Hunter-esque tortures), they have to deal with a traitor in their own ranks, and they have to cross an uncrossable bridge. Ranks are inevitably reduced until the final showdown takes place at the James Bond-style base where the missiles are housed.
If there is one element in all of this that sets this apart from Western War films, other than kung fu fighting, it is Yuen Wah's performance as the villainous giggling general whose battalion is following our heroes. His performance is so eccentric and over the top it makes the performances in Batman and Robin seem tame and realistic. Between his giggling and fanning, and the explosive delivery of his few spoken lines will make you wonder what the heck his deal is.
If ever there was a film for hard-core Asian action fans, this is it. Bullets fly, kicks and punches exchange, and handy jungle objects convert into deadly weapons at need. This is not, we repeat NOT, a date film - unless you and your date just happen to be into rainforest combat.
Samo Hung stars and directs, so his character, Tung, gets to do the coolest stuff. In one scene he jumps off a cliff and lands in a truck full of bad guys, whom he holds hostage by threatening to pull the pins on some handy grenades. In another scene, he improvises a weapon out of some sort of bamboo or palm frond that somehow fires with enough force to penetrate a person's neck.
Our favorite part of the film, though, is the climatic kung fu fight between Tung and Rat and the giggling general and a couple of his cronies. Oh sure, there should be a plethora of guns lying around on the floor of the base that the combatants could use against each other, but nobody seems to notice them. Instead we get an amazing display of martial arts prowess. This is pretty much the best kung fu fighting we've ever seen -- and we've seen plenty of Jackie Chan and Jet Li films to compare it to. Yuen Biao is one of the best on-screen fighters ever, and the (slightly) slimmed down Samo Hung is amazingly agile and fast. Also, the contestants are well matched, with Samo's bulk facing off with skinny Yuen Wah's fluid and bizarre kung fu style. If you are any kind of fan of HK action films, you must check out Eastern Condors for yourself.