AKA: Mad Mission 5
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Writer: Chang Gwok Tsz
Cast: Sam Hui, Karl Maka, Leslie Cheung, Nina Li Chi, Conan Lee, Billy Chong, Maria Cordero, Ha Chi Jan, Mark Houghton, Walter Tso, Melvin Wong, Wayne Archer, Bruce Fontaine, Brad Kerner, Roy Cheung, Danny Lee, Fennie Yuen
Running Time: 102 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There’s a distinct feeling with the fifth instalment of the Aces Go Places series, that the producers we’re trying to aim for as broader audience as possible. Of course fans of the series would welcome another entry, especially after Eric Tsang, the director of the original and its sequel, unsuccessfully attempted a crossover with the Lucky Stars series in 1986’s Lucky Stars Go Places. While that movie did give us Sammo Hung, it came minus the main star of Aces Go Places, with the notable absence of Sam Hui. For the fifth entry (technically sixth), Hui is back, however this time you also have Lau Kar Leung in the director’s chair, guaranteed to bring in the kung fu movie fan base, and Hong Kong megastar Leslie Cheung thrown into the mix as well, here at the height of his popularity.
The decision to put Kar Leung in the director’s chair was an interesting one, as all of the previous entries in the series had been sold upon the promise of comedy and increasingly elaborate stunts. The third and fourth instalments were directed by Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam respectively, made at a time when both directors were coming into their own. Kar Leung on the other hand was quite the opposite, being an established Shaw Brothers director, now trying to find his way without the studio. What it certainly did mean though, is that we could expect less of the stunt work, and a shift in focus to an increase in fight scenes.
For anyone not familiar, the Aces Go Places series focuses on the comedic exploits of Sam Hui, who plays a kung fu expert master thief, and Karl Maka, who plays his bumbling detective sidekick. Billed as parodies of the James Bond series, the third instalment even featured Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and Sean Connery lookalike Jean Mersant in the role of 007 himself. The first Aces Go Places was released in 1982, with sequels released in ’83, ’84, and ’86. The Terracotta Hit marked the longest period that fans had to wait for a new helping of Hui and Maka’s shenanigans. However despite Hui’s return, cast regular Sylvia Chang, who played Maka’s long suffering wife, is missing, explained in the movie as having immigrated to Canada with their son. It’s worth mentioning that The Terracotta Hit would be the last in the series, notwithstanding a poorly received reboot, with Chin Ka Lok’s 97 Aces Go Places, that attempted to replace Hui and Maka with Alan Tam and Tony Leung Chiu-wai.
After directing Jet Li in the Mainland wushu epic Martial Arts of Shaolin in 1986, Lau Kar Leung would try several attempts at directing modern day action, first of all with Tiger on the Beat in 1988, and The Terracotta Hit would follow a year later. Several cast members from Tiger on the Beat return here, notably Nina Li Chi and Conan Lee. After the treatment Li Chi suffers in Tiger on the Beat, senselessly beaten at the hands of Chow Yun Fat, it’s a surprise that she agreed to star in another Lau Kar Leung movie just a year later. However perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she met her husband to be, the previously mentioned Jet Li, on the set of Dragon Fight during the same year. I like to think that Li told her he’d beat seven bells out of Kar Leung if she had to suffer such a scene again. He probably didn’t though.
The inclusion of Conan Lee is also a curious one (his character is hilariously called ‘Chinese Rambo’), as despite his reputation of being extremely arrogant and difficult to work with, Kar Leung worked with him more than any other director. The two would team up again the following year, for a sequel to Tiger on the Beat, in which he famously falls from the top of a streetlight in a stunt gone wrong. For the kung fu fans out there, the cast also includes Billy Chong as a nameless thug in his last Hong Kong movie appearance (a whole 6 years after A Fistful of Talons, so his appearance is random to say the least), Melvin Wong as a villainous thief, wushu champion Lu Yan (she was one of the Beijing Wushu Team that performed on the White House lawns for Nixon, along with Jet Li), and a who’s who of gweilos, including Mark Houghton, Bruce Fontaine, and Wayne Archer.
The plot itself sees Hui and Maka down on their luck, disowned by the police and living separate lives. Leslie Cheung and Nina Li Chi, playing sibling burglars, partially intercept a villainous groups attempt to steal the terracotta warriors, and to ensure the cops are thrown off the trail, they disguise themselves to look like Hui and Maka, framing them for a crime they didn’t commit. Ending up in possession of the Chinese Excalibur (seriously), events culminate in both the ‘old Aces’ (Hui and Maka) and the ‘new Aces’ (Cheung and Li Chi) being hired by the Chinese government to retrieve the stolen warriors, and return them to China.
The tone of The Terracotta Hit tends to veer a little all over the place. At times it goes for out and out comedy, particularly with the introduction of the main villain – a foreign devil played by Brad Kerner who is constantly seen stroking a white cat, until it’s revealed to actually be a hand puppet (which he never takes off!) However when our four Aces see themselves thrown into a prison on the Mainland, which is basically a death camp, the comedy simply doesn’t work in such oppressive surroundings, which includes Danny Lee in a bizarre cameo as a prisoner about to fulfil his death sentence. When it does work though, it’s on point, such as Sam’s office/living area, which contains a wrestling ring as a bed and a phone made out of Lego, oh, and of course – Chinese Rambo.
As expected, the vehicular stunt mayhem that was so prevalent in the earlier instalments is missing from the Aces Go Places swansong, instead relying on the physical talents of its cast. For the most part, the action delivers, and comes frequently enough to remain entertained. When Conan Lee initially visits Hui in his office, believing him to be behind the theft of the warriors, the two engage in a Jackie Chan style sequence of Hui attempting to weave in and out the various nooks and crannies of the area, with Lee in hot pursuit. There’s some nice falls involved, with Hui being sent crashing through every table available, and the whole place ending up completely trashed. In another, Lu Yan challenges the four Aces in a restaurant that, if they can beat her using western fencing against her Chinese sword, they don’t have to help the Chinese authorities, which leads into a playful but well-choreographed four-on-one east vs west sword dual.
The action is choreographed by Kar Leung’s brother, Lau Kar Wing, well known for his roles and action choreography alongside Sammo Hung in such classics as Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog and The Odd Couple, and while none of the leads are real martial artists, he does a fantastic job. Of course in saying that, just about all of the villains who have been cast are martial artists, or are at least well known for their screen fighting prowess, so when events build up to a finale that sees everyone converge in a warehouse storing the stolen warriors, Kar Wing delivers. The scene unfolds as a large group melee, with the added comedy of numerous warriors actually being villains in disguise.
Amongst the chaos, it’s Hui that looks the most legit, going toe-to-toe with both Billy Chong and Mark Houghton, before ending up armed with a Wing Chun Butterfly Sword in one hand, and a pair of nunchucks in the other. His performance could almost be considered a warm up for his role in The Dragon from Russia made the following year. There’s also a certain influence of the finale from Dragons Forever, released a year earlier, with stuntmen delivering some painful falls from elevated platforms to the ground below. Maka, Cheung, and Li Chi also get their licks in, with Li Chi’s retrieval of the sword resulting in one of the laugh out loud moments of the movie.
Despite the strength of the fight action, by the end it’s understandable why it would become the last in the series. The chemistry from the earlier movies isn’t quite there, Cheung and Li Chi are welcome additions, but again don’t really feel like they belong in an Aces Go Places movie, and Lau Kar Leung proves once more that he wasn’t best suited to modern day action comedies. As a time capsule of 1989 Hong Kong though, it has undeniable nostalgia value, back in the days when the Mainland was treated as one large mass of country bumpkins. Ironically, scenes that are played for comedy here, such as Conan Lee accidentally revealing a full back tattoo declaring his love for China, would have comparatively similar scenes played completely poker faced 25 years later in the likes of Wolf Warrior. A sign of changing times, but if you’re after a slice of unpretentious 80’s HK action comedy hijinks, you can certainly do a lot worse than The Terracotta Hit.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10