Thursday, March 20, 2014


Ho Meng-hua may deserve a place in the pantheon of directors as the patron of decapitation. He gave the world The Flying Guillotine, and if that wasn't enough, he followed that milestone of mayhem a year later with another exotic head-cutter. The "Dragon Missile" isn't a rocket but a sort of boomerang, one of a pair used by Ssu-ma Chun (Lo Lieh), the enforcer for a tyrannical local governor. The trick is to keep both in the air at once to keep your enemy confused. As he ducks one, the other swoops in to take his head off. Like many a cinematic superweapon, the dragon missiles defy physics. Chun likes to throw them into walls and trees, perhaps because he enjoys the sparks given off when his weapons strike solid objects. He works on the assumption that he can carom them violently this way to get just the right angle on his target, and while you'd think that those impacts would sap the missiles of all momentum, at least as Ho shows them with his limited effects technology, the magic of cinema spells death for our antihero's intended victims.

Chun's master is dying painfully of a rare skin cancer that manifests in nasty boils on his back. The cure is rarer still: a root that can be acquired from but one herbalist in the territory. The root must be burned, its ashes having the real therapeutic effect -- unless they get wet. After having Chun kill the diagnosing physician, the governor orders him to find the herbalist and get the root. It's important not to tell the herbalist who the root is for, since the governor is widely hated and, there being no Hippocratic oath that I know of in China, the herbalist might let the bastard die. It sounds like a simple and non-violent task, but an ambitious chamberlain decides that Chun needs an escort. His idea actually is to have his picked escort kill Chun and put the root in his hands so the chamberlain can take credit for saving the governor's life. Chun takes a "whatever" attitude toward the escort -- Lo Lieh just has that look on his face naturally -- until one of the idiots fubars the mission by telling the herbalist that the root is for the governor. Of course, Chun now has to kill the herbalist, but he won't get to kill the knucklehead that deserves it until much later in the picture. And for his trouble he earns the enmity of the herbalist's daughter, a martial artist in her own right of course.

Things go from bad to worse when a seeming bandit snatches the saddlebag Chun carries the root in. The bandit is actually the virtuous boyfriend of the herbalist's daughter, and he soon enough gets on the vengeance bandwagon when Chun kills his mother -- a martial artist in her own right of course -- after the lad stashes the saddlebag at her place. It's going to be a long trip back with the two avengers breathing down his neck and his alleged buddies waiting for a convenient time to kill poor Chun. And wouldn't you know? He has to swim part of the way.

The Dragon Missile is a preposterous picture that stays watchable thanks to a steady flow of fight scenes with a variety of styles and weapons, as well as Lo Lieh's surly charisma. But the title weapon lacks the crackpot inspiration of the flying guillotine, and as noted above, despite Ho's best efforts the missiles look silly in action. The best I can say is that the climactic fight scene features nice choreography as the actors dodge genuinely dangerous looking dragon missiles by close margins. On the other hand, the missiles are finally made hopelessly ridiculous when the heroes figure out that you really can stop the momentum of these head-cutting, branch-breaking weapons by hanging nets in their path. I saw it on El Rey so the film's own momentum was probably blunted a bit by numerous and lengthy commercial breaks, while the actors probably weren't well served by the English dubbing. Still, I think it's a treat that someone can watch TV in the daytime and see something like this, the way you could much more often when I was but a lad. At any given hour there's a lot worse you could see on TV than this film.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

This is a decent enough film, Sam. Ho did another one that takes place somewhere within the FG timeline called THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978). It's only partially an FG film, though. One of the Shaw's best 'B' movies, and superior to DRAGON MISSILE, imo. I looked up El Rey. I'd not heard of it. And wasn't aware the English dubbed version of this had made it past Africa. A bunch of Shaw's have turned up on South African cable lately, some of which dubs are pretty scarce -- for those who enjoy them.