Fatal Needles vs Fatal Fists - (1978)
Wong Tao was a popular martial arts matinee idol who starred in many flicks, some of them pretty good, and one, The Hot, The Cool, & The Vicious, that’s sensational. That being said, I’ve never been one of his fans. His look is a little too blandly handsome for my taste. While being an okay actor, he didn’t possess much charisma. And his roles tended to be of the dull self-righteous hero variety (in a Wong Tao movie, I’m almost always on the villain’s side). But of all of his solo vehicles none show him off the better effect than helmer Lee Tso Nam’s (director of the aforementioned The Hot, The Cool, & The Vicious) Fatal Needles vs Fatal Fists.
Fedora sporting Lo Lieh (a cool look on him) plays Chow Lung Cap’t of the local police, and Wong Tao is his Vice Cap’t Ming Who. This dynamic duo is more commonly referred to by their nickname, The Bandit Catchers. A name they earn in Wyatt Earp like fashion by cleaning up the bandit ridden town Tombstone-style, and keeping it clean. A fun opening credit montage shows off the cocky, smart ass, seemingly invincible bandit catchers catching bandits, (it ends with Chow & Ming laughing at their conquests into a freeze frame à la Starskey & Hutch). The duo is challenged by a group of bandits calling themselves The Four Devils (among The Four Devils is a young dialogue-less Sammo Hung wearing what looks like barrettes in his hair). The law enforcement officers vanquish these foes as easily as all the rest, but during the combat Ming accidentally slashes his partner with a butcher knife, resulting in Chow’s death. Lo Lieh fans will no doubt be understandably disappointed by his quick picture exit. Especially since his character is so cool. I could of easily watched an entire film of The Bandit Catchers catching bandits. And I would’ve especially loved to see Lieh’s Chow go up against the film’s later villain The Mongolian Bandit (Chang Yi).
Alas, it’s not meant to be.
When we next see Wong’s Ming Who he’s in a tavern surrounded by twenty empty wine bottles trying to drink himself to death. The townspeople try to comfort him, and tell him, nobody blames him for Chow’s death, but he must stop drinking and take his former partner’s position as Police Captain or he’ll no longer be their hero. At which point Ming flips the fuck out screaming, I’m not a hero, I’m nobody’s hero, I’m a killer!
When we next see Ming he’s left his old town and wandered to a new province, again trying to kill himself with alcohol, but this time in a brothel. When the brothel’s proprietor Madame Lee (a rich character played by Ling Hwa) confronts this penniless bum about how he intends to pay his bill, he informs her he can’t pay. You know what we do to bums who can’t pay their bill, she informs him, we break their legs. Good, he says. Break my legs, and my arms too. Then when I’m dead just throw my body in the river. Madam Lee decides to cut this bums ass a break by letting him work in the brothel as a lackey until his bill is paid. When the mistress asks his name, he tells her, I have no name (apparently everyone has heard of Ming Who and his iron fists). So Madam Lee christens him Chin Chi. Wong’s newly named Chin Chi goes about his lowly whorehouse lackey work, serving wine to drunken letches, cleaning up cum, and emptying piss buckets, rather contently. Then a rude group of customers try and humiliate one of the prostitutes that has shown him some kindness. Chin Chi stands up for her, but since he’s vowed never to use his fists again, and since he wants to die anyway, he stands motionless while the rascals stab him with butcher knives. His suicidal approach to fighting comes across as bravery to the whorehouse witnesses. Madam Lee proclaims Chin Chi is a hero! Exactly the role he’s trying to escape. So, mortally wounded, he flees the brothel, eventually collapsing in front of the house of the local magistrate and his family. It appears Chin Chi didn’t almost drop dead in just any town. But this province is the crossroad point that all drug smugglers must pass if they intend to move their merchandise into China.
It seems the elderly magistrate and his son and daughter (Jimmy Lee plays the son), like The Bandit Catchers, have kept the town clean of corruption, bandits, and most of all drug smugglers (exactly how they did this is left open to conjecture. Since the old man doesn’t appear to be any sort of a martial arts master, and the brother and sister, while proficient in martial arts, are hardly skilled enough to take on all comers). This righteous household nurses Chin Chi back to health, offering him a job without pay to work off his debt to them. It’s at this point into the small hamlet and the motion picture enters Chong Tung AKA The Mongolian Bandit, played by legendary Hong Kong heavy and Lee Van Cleef lookalike Chang Yi.
Chang Yi’s villainous turns in martial arts movies are one of the reasons fans of the genre like Kung Fu flicks in the first place. To me the four greatest villains of the old school Kung Fu flick era were Lo Lieh number one (the finest classical actor of their entire film industry), Chang Yi & Hwang Jing Lee would be tied for second and third, and Avenging Eagle’s Ku Feng would be fourth. The fact that Chang Yi & Hwang Jing Lee would be tied is not surprising, since they’re practically interchangeable. Not only did they both specialize in the Eagle’s Claw animal style fighting technique (in the west Chang Yi’s signature role being To Mo Hu in Eagle’s Claw & Hwang Jing Lee’s would be his Ying Jow Pai in Invincible Armour), they both look like each other, they both look like Lee Van Cleef, and they both really look like each other when they wear white wigs. The difference between the two are minor. Hwang Jing Lee is probably the better fighter (his kicks are amazing). And (according to Yuen Wo Ping) both on screen and off, Lee is the most nastily evil of the two (he did kick out Jacky Chan’s front teeth in Snakefist in Eagle’s Shadow). While Chang Yi is probably the better actor. But depending on the role or the film that opinion could be reversed. The other biggest difference being, except for his self-directed Hitman in the Hand of Buddha, Hwang Jing Lee was always the heavy. Where Chang Yi was such a beloved staple of the martial arts genre, he, like his western brothers Jack Palance & Robert Ryan, played heroes as well as heavies. As in Wang Yu’s Three The Hard Way-like Dragon Squad, Golden Harvest’s sloppy but seminal Super ManChu, as the hapless target of invincible Angela Mao’s vengeance in the great Deep Thrust, and in what many think is his best starring vehicle Fast Sword with Sammo Hung. But it will always be for his villainous turns that Chang Yi holds a place in my genre loving heart. His picture stealing performance in Shaolin Iron Claws, his evil eunuch in The Traitorous, and the Van Cleef looking Chang Yi playing the Van Cleef role in Seven Commandments of Kung Fu, a martial arts remake of Lee Van Cleef’s spaghetti western classic Day of Anger. But his best roles were always for Lee Tso Nam (affectionately known by his fans as The Master Blaster!). Whether it be Chang Yi’s white haired baddie in Eagle’s Claw, Challenge to Death (Lee’s sequel to his career best The Hot, The Cool, and The Vicious), Shaolin Invincible Sticks, or Chang Yi’s performance as crime kingpin The Baron in Lee Tso Nam’s first of many films with Bruce Li Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger (in his own voice in the Cantonese version Chang Yi’s even better). In this picture as the cruel, but business-like tyrant, Chong Tung, Chang Yi adds another splendid contribution to his rogues’ gallery of evil Kung Fu fighting fuckers.
Chong Tung and his entourage, including his champion for hire, the film’s fight director, the incredible oddball Tommy Lee, intend to move a vast amount of drugs through the town into China. Chong warns the magistrate to stay out of their way. Either cooperate or die. Wong Tao’s Chin Chi witnesses all of this and doesn’t lift a finger to help, even when the sickly old man magistrate is beaten within a inch of his life by Tommy Lee. Branding him in the eyes of everyone in the town as a coward. And from that point on he’s actually referred to as The Coward Chin Chi (a good title for the film).
Naturally this goes on for awhile till something finally makes Chin Chi show his true colors and his fatal fists. The Shane-like scene where The Coward Chin Chi finally fights back against the bullies who work for Chong, is a crowd pleasing pure movie moment that’s worth the wait. From that point on, like the title suggests, it’s Wong Tao’s Fatal Fists vs Chang Yi’s deadly secret weapon, his Fatal Needles (as in acupuncture needles that freeze you once stuck by them. And only the evil Chong can remove without causing death).
Everything about this production is first rate, starting with Lee Tso Nam’s longtime screenwriter Cheung San Yee’s well-written script (in both plotting and dialogue). The Master Blaster’s expressive camera. Ling Hwa’s Madam Lee is given an elegant introduction by director Lee in a long tracking shot that takes her from one end of the brothel to the other, shot through hanging beads and paper walls, without a cut (What one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s long tracking shots might look like if he used a zoom lens instead of a steadicam). And an excellent cast of familiar faces (as usual Tommy Lee is a hoot. If Chang Yi was martial arts cinemas answer to Lee Van Cleef, then Tommy Lee most definitely was its Klaus Kinski). The film also boasts very effectively used needle drops from Pino Donaggio’s score from Carrie.
The final fight between Chang Yi and Wong Tao is as dynamic as any film that dares to use vs in its title ought to be. Made all the better by The Master Blaster’s decision, after playing everything up to that point fairly naturalistically, to place the final conflict on a theatrical set straight out of a Peeking Opera.
When Fatal Needles vs Fatal Fists played Los Angeles originally in ‘78 or ‘79, it was on the bottom half of a Kung Fu triple feature (it played at The Tower Theatre in Downtown LA, and where I saw it at The Carson Twin Cinema) with The Soul Of Bruce Lee starring Sonny Chiba, and Wai Man Chan’s starring heroic vehicle The Bravest Fist. But in its only LA theatrical engagement it played under the dopey title of Kung Fu Hercules due to a minor fat minion of Chong Tung. Obviously meant to confuse urban audiences that they were seeing Bolo Yung’s popular flick Chinese Hercules.