Director: Kuei Chih-Hung
Producer: Alex Gouw
Cast: Bruce Li (aka Ho Chung Tao, James Ho), Hon Gwok Choi, Lin Ke Ming, Philip Ko Fei, San Kuai, Wai Lit, Leung Gwing Wan, Lee Fat Yuen, Nick Lam Wai Kei, Shikamura Yasuyoshi, Chu Chi Ling, Li Chao, Sham Chin Bo, Tai San, Glenn Thompson
Running Time: 87 min.
Iron Dragon Strikes Back (aka The Gold Connection) kicks its way out of the typical tedium of Bruceploitation and becomes a shining example of how great old-school kung-fu movies could be. Everything from the direction to the non-mainstream ending seems to scream out for recognition. It is as if the filmmakers fully tried to escape the bonds of exploitation chop-sockery, and, watching this movie twenty-four years after its release, I can only say they succeeded. Iron Dragon Strikes Back is a classic that stands equal alongside better-known kung-fu films of the time. It also cements my theory that Bruce Li (aka Ho Chung Tao) could have become just as famous as Jackie Chan, had he continued making movies into Hong Kong’s “new wave” era of cinema, in the early ’80s.
Li plays a kung-fu teacher who, while scuba diving with some students, discovers a cache of gold bars. The fact that these gold bars are emblazoned with “666” could probably be seen as foreshadowing, but I don’t want to read too much into it. Li advises his buddies to drop the gold back into the lake, as it could mean trouble; perhaps this gold was dropped here for someone else to pick up. Of course, Li’s right, but feisty student Ah Kune (who later appeared in a few Alexander Liu films) goes back on his own and gets the bars. The crooked businessman whom was the gold’s original recipient sends waves of henchmen out to find who’s taken the gold, and so begins one of the most noirish and brutal kung-fu films of the 1970s.
The fights presented in the film are claustrophobically manic, as combatants take on each other in the grungy confines of Hong Kong’s slums. Bruce Li’s martial skills by this point in his career were exceptional, and in the final fight in particular he shows off some great foot work, as well as some fancy moves with a katana. As a matter of fact, every fighter in the film is quick-footed, and there’s none of the ham-fistedness that plagued earlier Li films.
In many ways, Iron Dragon can be looked at as a horror movie. There’s undeniable suspense and terror in the film. Early in the story, a group of thugs chase one of Li’s students, Ah Chow, through a cluttered, narrow alley, and your heart pounds with anticipation. Shots are framed in unusual and unique angles, and director Kwai maintains a level of tension from beginning to end. When the faceless assassin (employed by the crooked businessman to track down Li and pals) kills his prey, he does so in the most horrific ways possible. Even the “regular” thugs under the businessman’s employ are brutally effective. In one grisly scene, they beat a victim to death, then hang his corpse from a ceiling fan. The camera gazes up at the rotating corpse, burning one of many memorable images into the viewer’s memory.
The film is not without comedy, though it is comedy of a very dark nature. Li, Ah Kune, and another pal (played by Philip Ko) attempt to rescue a kidnapped Ah Chow from the thugs. Chow, beaten and immobile from the waist down, tries to board Kune’s mini-bus. However, the thugs wrestle with Kune for control of the bus, and all the while Chow helplessly clings to the door. Every time he makes the slightest bit of progress into the bus, one of the thugs gets hold of the wheel, and Chow gets dragged along the ground at top speed.
Those looking for romance will be left underwhelmed. Li has a girlfriend, whom he wishes to marry, but this plot strand is left dangling in the ensuing chaos. Not that it matters, anyway, as Li’s girl is dealt with in a very horrific way by the faceless assassin. Character development is good enough to be desired; you learn enough about Li and his pals to like them, and regret their fate.
Special mention must be made of the final fight. Starting off with a terrifying murder in the bathroom, it moves on to a close-quarters battle in the living room between Li and the assassin. As mentioned above, Li shows his stuff here, from take-downs to high kicks. The final move, in which he kicks off the assassin’s head, is incredibly effective and unsuspected, and is much more realistic than you’d expect from a movie from Iron Dragon’s genre and era.
Not everything is perfect, though. The DVD release, while inexpensive, is made from a scratched and faded film print. The audio’s fairly good, but the release is in fact not widescreen. This is clear in scenes in which more than two characters are on screen; heads will be cut off, and you can’t see who’s talking. There are black lines at the top and bottom of the screen, which gives the impression that it’s letterboxed, but I think this is more of a technical gaffe on the part of the DVD manufacturers. Perhaps they were just trying to fool the viewer, but the DVD case does state that the film is full-print.
Joe909’s Rating: 9/10