Chinese Stuntman, The | aka Counter Strike (1981) Review

"The Chinese Stuntman" VHS Cover

"The Chinese Stuntman" VHS Cover

AKA: Counterstrike, Chinese Stunt Man
Director: Bruce Li (aka Ho Chung Tao, James Ho)
Cast: Bruce Li (aka Ho Chung Tao, James Ho), Dan Inosanto, John Ladalski, Sze Ma Lung, Paul Wei, Chiu Ting, Kong Yeung, Liu Hok Ming, Chen Chin Hai, Kong Do, Ng Git Keung
Running Time: 90 min.

By Joseph Kuby

Groundbreaking New Wave Classic!

The Chinese Stuntman is a lot more than being some typical Bruceploitation flick. It’s actually one of the most important films to be made during the New Wave era of Hong Kong cinema – it brings over a surprising level of realism and maturity that previous films had lacked and which, at best, was rarely seen (unlike the surrealism and overly comic under/overtones which permeated previous offerings).

So this film should really be taken seriously on first viewing and its prominence should be noted. This film is wonderfully satirical and with Bruce Le as the assistant director, I think it’s fair to say that the less-inspired moments may have come from him and whoever else was assisting the director.

In fact, the only reason why the film is referred to as a Bruceploitation film is because on the UK DVD cover the film’s star (and director), James Ho Chung Tao, is advertised as Bruce Li – his original star name and one he applied to the previous film’s he appeared in (not that he ever intended to use it since he respects Bruce). Really, the only comparison he shares with Bruce is what other Chinese actors at the time shared with Bruce – they all wear a Chinese afro.

Additionally, the film features Bruce’s friend/teacher/student/actor Dan Inosanto, Dan’s Jeet Kune Do student John Ladalski (who can be seen in Jackie Chan’s Armour of God), Paul Wei Ping Ao (the actor who played the Chinese interpreter for the foreign villains in Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon) and there are plenty of Bruce Lee poster/magazines which can be seen in the apartment of Ho Chung Tao (which brings to mind a scene in Sammo Hung’s Heart of Dragon where we see this person’s apartment which prominently displays a poster of Bruce Lee) as well a verbal reference to the man himself.

The Chinese Stuntman is a lot more better than the similarly themed/titled The Stuntwoman directed by Ann Hui, starring Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung which started out promisingly but soon outstayed its welcome and become an utter bore despite good performances which came from the two leads.

The Stuntwoman lost its way when we were introduced to this comical looking Triad villain and the look of the action sequences which came from this plot-point took away from the realism and emotional power of the film. There was an annoying kid actor with a dated Elvis hairstyle and despite some moments of poignancy, The Stuntwoman was very ponderous (it was slow-paced, meaningless and lethargic). The story of The Stuntwoman became cliche as she fell in love with this film producer/millionaire type who turns out to be a playboy who eventually two-times on her.

Just like The Chinese Stuntman, The Stuntwoman has this room-mate who lives with her though it’s not as explored well as in this film. The Stuntwoman may have been directed by Ann Hui but that doesn’t mean to say that her movie was better.

The Chinese Stuntman explores more into the insights of the Hong Kong film industry, something which Ann Hui didn’t do with her movie. Moreover the film ends with delicious irony as we see these two contemporary-dressed Kung Fu actors fighting on a period Kung Fu movie set.

The action is innovative such as the way the camera tilts side to side as Ho and John exchanges hooks (punch-wise) that hit the other to tilt to their side. Their relationship is filmed (i.e. acted, scripted and directed) in a more realistic manner than the overly stylistic even stilted manner present in previous Hong Kong films.

Overall, a classic which makes one wish Ho had stayed to make more films. On the strength of Chinese Stuntman and The Gold Connection (US title Iron Dragon Strikes Back), he would have easily made films with Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong, John Woo, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, Ronnie Yu and others. Perhaps making a name for himself in a genre outside martial arts (e.g. like how Danny Lee went from Bruceploitation actor to the obligatory cop and how Lam Ching Ying went from Kung Fu player to ghost buster). Ho left because he was tired of being associated with the Bruceploitation genre and being marketed as Bruce Li (though this film has him credited by his real name). In addition, his wife had died and prior to that she had made him promise not to make any more films (whether this was a dying wish or one that was done with no foresight of her death is not as important as the fact that it was a marital vow). Ho is now an owner of a Singaporean gym teaching students gymnastics and the ins and outs of film production.

Very good film!

As a footnote, from this point on I will refer to Bruce Li as James Ho, out of respect, since that’s what he preferred to be referred to as. The guy deserves it!

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 9/10

By Joe909

Bruce Li (real name: Ho Chung Tao) could’ve been one of the big stars of Hong Kong’s New Wave film explosion in the early ’80s. Instead, he chose to retire, just as Hong Kong filmmaking was reaching its peak. Vilified in the past, Bruce Li is now openly admired by chop-sockey lovers. The facts alone endear him: he didn’t choose to be called Bruce Li (in fact, he fought against being called this from the beginning of his film career), he was a great admirer of the real Bruce Lee, he worked night and day to become a more realistic, on-screen fighter, and he experienced heartache; his wife of many years died of cancer toward the end of his film career. In fact, that, along with his continuing dismay with how international distributors were marketing him under a fake, disrespectful name, was what lead Chung Tao to retire.

But still, this guy made a ton of movies in his time, and though the early ones are terrible due to his lack of on-screen skill, later Bruce Li movies are some of the best kung-fu flicks of all time. He learned how to move quick, how to portray his own image, rather than cop the real Bruce Lee’s. Whereas Bruce Le and Dragon Lee were content to star in the worst crap ever, Bruce Li eventually took pains to ensure that his films provided sheer entertainment.

This film was both written and directed by Chung Tao, who for once actually got his real name displayed in the opening credits. Of course international distributors plastered the name Bruce Li all over advertisements, and this name is also displayed on the video release (actually, my video says that it stars Bruce Le, and even has a pic from Bruce Le’s Enter the Game of Death), but regardless, the name Ho Chung Tao shows up in the credits, and it’s his movie all the way.

The movie opens typically enough: a white guy walks into a Hong Kong kung-fu school and starts challenging people. He cleans the floor with them, until Bruce Li steps in and gives the gweilo a run for his money. This goes on throughout the opening credits, with fast-paced funk music throughout. Bruce Li beats the white guy (John) around for a while, but then the fight ends very creatively: a phone call comes in for Bruce. Excited, he tells John thanks, runs over to the phone, and finds out he’s been given an insurance job he really wanted.

We follow Bruce through his first day, and it’s really funny how damn much this guy wants to sell insurance. It’s like his entire life purpose is to fill this position. Unfortunately, this being a kung-fu movie, things aren’t so easy for Bruce. He gets challenged often and for obscure reasons by various people. After a hard day of work, he comes home to find John outside his apartment. But no fear, John’s hear to learn kung-fu from Bruce. And in another burst of creativity, John becomes Bruce’s live-in student and pal.

We’re treated to several scenes of John and Bruce engaging in bizarre kung-fu training, such as kicking at eggs that hang from ropes, or just your basic sparring. All, I might add, while they wear color-coordinated tracksuits. And also all while they talk about what’s going on with Bruce’s job. This gave me the idea for a TV show: it could be about a Chinese guy and a white guy who live together and train in kung-fu together, all while going through the usual sitcom bullshit. Like they could be sparring while they’re talking about their girlfriends or whatever. The name I came up for the show is “Bruce And The White Guy”.

Anyway, there are a ton of fights to cover up the hazy plot. Unlike early Bruce Li flicks, these fights are all excellent. The highlight of the movie is when Dan Inosanto enters into combat. Inosanto plays a cocky kung-fu teacher who’s hired to act as fight choreographer for the film Bruce is working on. Inosanto’s character is very gray in that at first he’s presented as evil, then he’s a good guy because he’s on Bruce’s side, but then finally he’s bad as he whips the floor with John and then takes on Bruce. Using his trademark escrima sticks, Dan proves that he could’ve been an excellent kung-fu actor. His fight isn’t as great as the one with the real Bruce Lee in Game of Death, but it’s pretty close.

I’ve heard that this and Dynamo are considered Bruce Li’s two best movies. I haven’t seen Dynamo, but I’d like to. Chinese Stuntman is a perfect fix if you’re melancholy for the good old days of Kung-Fu Theater.

Joe909’s Rating: 8/10

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2 Responses to Chinese Stuntman, The | aka Counter Strike (1981) Review

  1. squeesh says:

    Good review of a pretty decent film—it’s a surprisingly rare look at the inside of the making of a kung fu film, and it is too bad that Bruce Li wasn’t able to continue being a director. He was actually the most talented of the fake Bruce Lees. and the only one I think could have been a genuine star in his own right even without the Bruce label being slapped on him for exploitation’s sake. He had the good looks, the charisma, and the fighting skills—he was the whole package. In this film, it’s obvious that he wanted to get out from under the Bruce label, but, ironically, it ended up trapping him in the Bruce image, so no wonder he left the biz. At least he left behind a lot of good and still entertaining kung fu movies (and some bad ones,too.)

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