Enter the Hong Kong Action Trio of Director Robert Clouse (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Ashley is an interesting actress, big in the theatre, with a distinctive voice. She was nominated for a Golden Globe way back in 1965 for her role in The Carpetbaggers. It is there she met her future husband George Peppard (1928-94 lung cancer). She took time out to have a child and reportedly suffered a breakdown which remained unexplained. Ashley was meant to appear in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995) but the film ran too long and her scene had to be cut.

Married couple George Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley with Sidney Poitier (centre)

That Joe Don Baker is the white American hero in then British controlled Hong Kong before the handover to the Chinese in 1997 also obviously didn’t appeal to Chinese audiences there at the time.

Baker is retained by Ashley, with a hug, and a promise of the words “I love you” along with $30,000. Meanwhile Sothern is the madam of a “mahjong parlour” where the pair meet. It’s also Baker’s fists against the impotence of martial arts which is probably another reason the film failed in Hong Kong, as Baker pounds men into submission ham-fistedly.

Lalo Schifrin earns an honorary Oscar with Dirty Harry star Clint Eastwood presenting

The statuette apparently quickly recovered to be sent to America… Baker and Ashley make love several times and demolish what must have been the largest seafood buffet for two ever seen… then as Sothern is about to be tortured, a big fight breaks out martial arts style at the mah-jong parlour… and Ashley then disappears with Baker’s $30,000.

Good use is made of Hong Kong locations, including a cemetery, various streets, hotel lobbies and mansions – especially in the climax.

Burgess Meredith with the statuette

Overall, Golden Needles is a very good attempt at a mixture of American fisticuffs and martial arts. In a scene midway through the movie, both “disciplines” are used again in a fight scene as onlookers laugh afterwards at the punches and knees to the groin. Symbolic among them of the seriousness which films like Golden Needles would be taken by the Hong Kong public.

Jim Kelly turns up with a moustache and the same but even bigger afro haircut he had in Enter the Dragon. The 1970s fashions aren’t too distracting, except for maybe Burgess Meredith’s red and white bow tie as he plays a millionaire who has plans for the statuette.

I don’t know what it is about Golden Needles but it must be its attempt to take martial arts and meld it into the detective genre for the mainstream which makes it almost unique.

Golden Needles (1974) trailer

There is a near identical shot of Baker being taken to a junk in a small boat on the bay, this time by a boy rather than a woman carrying a baby. So the film echoes Enter the Dragon a little along with Jim Kelly, who according to the credits, choreographed his own fight scenes. “Jim Kelly’s fight sequences staged by himself” it reads, in almost masturbatory fashion. But Golden Needles is in a universe of its own despite the fact that local Baker is still a fish out of water big-time, almost as big as the seafood buffet presented to he and Ashley!

Joe Don Baker uses his fists a lot in Golden Needles, something lost in the translation

This is definitely a bottle of wine or six-pack movie and the type of movie I usually would have laughed and dismissed with a joint in my teenage years.

The climax, which has Baker escape gangsters in Hong Kong suits, statue in hand… the entire local population joins in the chase through the backstreets as rumour goes round he has killed a child. This climax is well shot and has been edited by Michael Kahn (1945-) who went on to edit almost every Steven Spielberg movie there is. Clouse is again surrounded by talent, and while the film doesn’t make the full quota of sense, it’s one to watch again. If anyone saw it upon its initial release, it must have been at the drive-ins. As for my subliminal and odd love for movies which end with the line “I love you” – this one doesn’t. Instead there’s a pashy on the lips: “Come here” between Baker and Ashley.

Yes, its one of those netherworld movies in a world of its own! Rejoice!!

Spielberg with longtime collaborator editor Michael Kahn

The Amsterdam Kill is Clouse’s third film in his Hong Kong trio. I don’t think it is as good as Golden Needles and much of the film is set in Europe but star Robert Mitchum (1917-97 lung cancer) helps give the film a lift.

Mitchum was on a bit of a late career high after scoring a bit of a hit with Farewell My Lovely (1975) and the 1940s and 50s actor is still sprightly enough at almost sixty to carry off the action scenes.

The Amsterdam Kill (1977) quad poster

While Clouse may have hinted at drugs with the title of Golden Needles, this film is up front and about rival drug gangs trying to control heroin smuggling throughout the world. In particular, the Triads and their syndicate ties to Europe.

Other members of the cast include a relatively long-haired Richard Egan (1921-87 prostate cancer) in one of his last roles, Leslie Nielson (1926-2010 pneumonia) definitely not playing for laughs, Bradford Dillman (1930-2018 pneumonia) and the always reliable, since the 1930s, Chinese-American actor Keye Luke (1904-91).

Keye Luke (right) as Number One son with Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in the 1930s

Mitchum plays a disgraced narcotics agent who took money from the agency to pay for his own habit.

While Golden Needles wasn’t a Golden Harvest production, this one is, this time with Columbia Pictures. It was Warner Brothers who helped distribute Enter the Dragon. Warners obviously no takers after Lee’s death.

Clouse wrote the screenplay, based on someone else’s original story. The images are strong again thanks to cinematographer Alan Hume (1924-2010), who worked on a couple of Bond films in a filmography which stretches back to him being a focus puller in the late 1940s.

Robert Mitchum in the Farewell, My Lovely (1975) trailer

“Clean as a whistle gentlemen, poor, but honest,” says Mitchum, showing his arm to agency members when called to act as a go-between for Luke, who wants to give them vital information about the syndicate.

“I hate a cop that goes bad, especially a really good cop,” Egan says to Dillman.

Clouse has a good ear for dialogue for a deaf man. Actually, the cast could be making it up as they went along because Clouse had to rely on crew members to tell him if it was a good take. Was Clouse deaf from birth? I don’t have that information. But again, he wrote a number of very literate scripts that sound perfectly natural.

Longtime couple Suzy Parker and Bradford Dillman in the early 1960s

Dillman is said to have only done the film so he could take his wife actress Suzy Parker (1932-2003 kidney failure ending dialysis) on a trip to Hong Kong. Mitchum also said he did the film for the money and a trip to Europe.

There are scenes in Aberdeen Harbor’s floating village again as in the previous two movies. You can still hire junks and venture into the harbor there although the extent of people living on junks may not be as grand as it used to be.

The music is a slight disappointment in this movie, not that Clouse would know he was short-changed as he couldn’t hear it. Composer Hal Shaffer (1925-2012) and his jazz quintet turns out to be Hal Schaefer who coached many a star to sing over the years. It’s his last of very few scores. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but the score is conspicuous by its absence throughout much of the film instead relying on location sound.

Hal Schaefer gives Marilyn Monroe a tutorial – one of many of his students

Also missing is the martial arts element in its entirety. I guess Clouse was planning to make a fist of the leftovers of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death which would be released the following year. Instead we are treated to gunshots. Mitchum and the rest of the cast were not known for their martial arts prowess.

As a serious drug movie, compared to the epic Bondian island silliness of Enter the Dragon and the even sillier plot of Golden Needles, the tone of The Amsterdam Kill is far more earthy.

Mitchum on location – one of many used in The Amsterdam Kill

Other Hong Kong locations include Happy Valley racecourse.

“What about the location?,” asks Dillman of Mitchum about a meeting.

Dillman could be commenting on the film as the location work is the best thing about the movie.

Despite the dialogue, Clouse’s script is pretty empty. Mitchum throws a few punches here or there but the excitement is a little anaemic finally spiced up in the final third with some machine gun fire.

Mitchum took on The Yakuza (1975) trailer

It is at the end of the movie that the film goes into overdrive action-wise and it was action that Clouse was best at – the performances he got otherwise are remarkable for a deaf director. We are back in Amsterdam where there is a car chase which ends up in the canal and the final set-piece is rather epic as a tractor driven by Mitchum demolishes large tracts of glass houses where the operation is centred. They hide the dope in planting pots.

That Mitchum almost single-handedly ends the cartel’s business in Amsterdam is fitting as a drug addict’s revenge. The actor had already taken on the Japanese crime syndicate The Yakuza (1974) so it seemed only poetic he’d to the same with the Triads.

Villain Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Full marks for Mitchum for dunking himself in the festering Amsterdam canals but much of the action is limited to phone calls between location filming and the few set pieces. Not bad. That ends the trio.

Clouse went back to the marital arts after The Amsterdam Kill and one of his last films is the good-bad movie Gymkata (1985). Starring Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas (1956-) as an Olympic gymnast who combines his art with martial arts as he goes – like Enter the Dragon – to a fictional country to perform in a deadly competition where his father disappeared.

The intensely “special” Gymkata DVD cover

Thomas was nominated for a Razzie for his acting in this movie and apparently his face drops at its very mention. The film did recoup its budget despite its legend among bad movie lovers.

Adapted for the screen by Blind Fury (1989) screenwriter Robert James Carner (1957-), it is based on a 1957 novel by Dan Tyler Moore (no info). There are still fans of the novel.

Filmed in Yugoslavia, the country in the film called Parmistan has never lost the terrible local hunting game/gymkata for 900 years to an outsider.

Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas may not have been in on the joke Clouse made of Gymkata

Clouse has created another movie in a universe of its own and the results are so very amusing you have to wonder if that was what the writer and director were aiming for. There does seem to be much tongue in cheek.

Director Clouse has made the antithesis of Enter the Dragon, with a cast including the first ever Filipino Playboy model Tetch Agbayani (1961-) and accomplished martial artist Richard Norton (1950-) who worked as a fight co-ordinator recently on X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019).

“It’s a subtle blend of the martial arts of the East, the fighting skills of the West,” says the guy who recruits Thomas for his trek to “Karabal on the Caspian Sea” on his way to Parmistan, which can only be reached by pack-mule and by white water rafting.

Gymnastics can be lethal we learn in the action send-up Gymkata

Clouse has presented us here with the proverbial kitchen sink in terms of martial arts movies, with bullets, car crashes and ninjas… Whether it’s the sight of only two men with hoes working in an industrial sized salt mine, or the line “there’s a little anti-American sentiment” by a guy moments before he gets an arrow in the chest… Parmistan seems like a Middle Eastern country, with a touch of Italy!

Anyway, we soon learn that gymnastics can be lethal!

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says our hero after knocking an innocent local off his bicycle after one violent scene.

Filipino Playboy model Tetch Agbayani is the female interest in Gymkata

What we do know about Parmistan is there are few dentists, the locals love to dress in flowing robes, watch a good killing, and feast Middle Ages style after a hard days cheering… I won’t mention the nation’s leader’s comb-over or the place known as “the town of crazies”!

Gymkata (1985) trailer

Taken with a bewildered straight face and Clouse has created an almost surreal masterpiece. It is on a par with Golden Needles but in a league of its own. This is helped further by the majestic music performed by the Zagreb Symphony Orchestra, a masterstroke of tightly budgeted epic music!

Director Clouse doesn’t seem to ignore Lee here. Such is the stuff of legends and rumours.

Clouse never topped Enter the Dragon. As a deaf man the odds were stacked against him and any sympathy vote he got from the Oscars for his early short films, he used and capitalised upon to create for himself a rather impressive career even so far as a writer/director. Yes, the odds were stacked against him like the leads in his movies but he used every bit of grit and determination it must have taken in a silent world to create his best and even worst films. If there were critics around him at the time complaining, Clouse had the luxury of not hearing them! Thus, like the director himself, the films he created often inhabit a special place!!

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