Jackie Chan on fine form as adventuring treasure hunter, erm, Jackie, on his way to uncover lost Nazi gold…
I always had a soft spot for Armour Of God. Released in 1987, it came at the tail end of Jackie Chan’s most prolific and successful period, following Project A and Police Story. More irreverent than those movies, Jackie starred as a former musician turned adventurer called, well, Jackie, who hunts ancient treasure in an Indiana Jones style. His former band mate turns up, played by Alan Tam, allowing for fun, almost surreal ‘archive footage ‘of the band in their heyday. There are particularly finely choreographed fight sequences that stress graceful, balletic moves, alongside his usual stunt work.
For most people, though, it’s best known as the film that almost killed Jackie. Performing a routine and relatively unspectacular stunt, he suffered a head injury, which was the closest he ever came to death on set. Unsurprisingly, the end result was a little messy, namely due to a long gap between filming sections of the film, but still highly popular in Hong Kong. In terms of the spirit of the original Indiana Jones films, if The Seventh Curse laid much of the groundwork, another Wisely vehicle released the same year as Armour, The Legend Of Wisely, captured their ambition – and beat the real Indy to punch involving aliens over 20 years before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Even for an actor well known for returning to previous film titles – often with increasingly little to do with the original premise, let alone storylines or characters (take New Police Story or the forthcoming Police Story 2013, for instance) – you might have thought that would put him off returning to the series. But return he did in 1991, with Armour Of God II: Operation Condor, often known more simply as Operation Condor (and again more recently, with 2012’s CZ12, or Chinese Zodiac). Maybe he thought he could do a better job second time around? And this time with a much bigger budget.
Operation Condor begins in spectacularly blockbuster form, with a pre-title sequence supposedly located in the Amazon (actually Taal Lake in Cavite, Philippines) where Jackie, aka Condor, is raiding an underground giant statue of its precious diamonds. Surrounded by tribes’ people (in a scene rather too close to the Buddha statue in The Seventh Curse), they only become angered when he drinks their precious water, and a timely escape is called for. But how to escape a legion of angry tribesmen? How about Zorbing1? Straight off a cliff face…?
It is, of course, the classic Bond/Indy opener, with no relevance on what will follow. As the camera pans up and away from this idyllic location, you can really tell the money that went into this film. When it was made it was alleged to be the most expensive Hong Kong film made up to that point (and with a budget of HK $115 million, or US $15 million, there’s probably still quite a few that would still like that kind of money).
Playing closer to the Indiana Jones influence this time, Jackie is commissioned to track down some Nazi gold hidden away in a forgotten German base in the Sahara, with the help of professor Ada (Carol Cheng, Her Fatal Ways, The Eighth Happiness, Tiger Cage, Queen of Temple Street) and the German base commander’s daughter (and Erika Eleniak lookalike, here at least) Elsa (Eva Cobo De Garcia, Matador). There’s an obligatory nod to the whip scene, only this time it’s Jackie showing off his kung fu skills with a spear, just as a whole army or villagers turn up.
The film plays up slapstick, with the female cast often caught in embarrassing moments of undress while they make their way towards the base via Morocco, pursued by mercenaries with the same intent, and picking up Momoko (Ikeda Shoko), a market trader Condor met back in Madrid, along the way. But much of this falls away when the mercenaries’ leader Adolf (played by Spaghetti Western henchman Aldo Sambrell, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars, A Fistful of Dollars, Shaft in Africa) catches up with them.
Easily, this film comes at a point where Jackie is recognising his international audience. Filmed out of Hong Kong, with a mainly Western cast (and one Japanese actress, playing to a large fan base there too) you can see Jackie has his eyes on crossing over to the US audience. A fax he receives is in English, not Chinese. Though that was still some years away, despite having already tried several times over the previous decade.
As such, despite some great set pieces, this feels rather too much like a ‘greatest hits’ package than Jackie at his most inspired. A well-orchestrated chase through the streets and docks of Madrid, where cars pursue Jackie on a scooter, recalls the bicycle sequence in Project A. Here he deliberately replicates the sequences of classic caper films; reinventing the ‘men carrying a glass plane’ gag with a precious painting, and also including the ‘pram on a busy road’ (which he’d return to with Robin-B-Hood). The interplay between Elsa and Ada echoes that between Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung in Police Story. The film itself feels like a big budget version of Wheels On Meals, even returning to Spain for some of the location work – though it’s Madrid this time, not Barcelona.
Throughout, Jackie largely seems to be playing an exaggerated version of himself, all film star shades and designer gear; living the excessive superstar lifestyle of a modern entertainment icon – which by this stage he most definitely was – surrounded by his ‘boys toys’. (Largely these are not outlandish Bond gadgets, but real cutting-edge technology of the time, such as a handheld scanner.) It allows quite a tongue-in-cheek look at Jackie’s star persona, but at points it’s a little disarming, especially as the character shares the same name; like this might really be how he spends his time off.
Much of Operation Condor’s over extended dénouement takes place in a wind tunnel – it’s amazing how anything can be convincingly made to look like a Nazi base with the addition of a few swastikas and some of those big red drapes you see in all the movies. That’s after one of those drapes again predicts a stunt gag to come, this time from Rush Hour, and another gag sees machinery pushing platforms up and down as Jackie fights on, rather becoming like a computer game of those (more innocent) times. One final fight against high-speed winds turns into a dance, truly playing into Jackie’s Peking Opera training.
Throughout, the film looks much better than many action films, with attractive and imaginative composition – despite there actually being three cinematographers: Arthur Wong (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Iron Monkey, Bodyguards and Assassins, Painted Skin: The Resurrection, The Warlords), Cheung Yiu-Jo (Wheels On Meals, Police Story, Project A, The Private Eyes) and Tam Chi-Wai (The Medallion, The Moon Warriors, Iron Monkey). Undoubtedly due to schedules and the different locations, but look on the bright side: at least there were less than on the original Armour Of God, for which HKMDB and IMDB list 14!
Solid rather than jaw dropping stunt work and pretty decent fights make for an enjoyable Jackie Chan film that meets, rather then exceeds, your expectations. Decent and overall perhaps more evenly directed than many of Jackie’s films, you can feel a template being created here that he would return to on films like The Medallion and The Myth.
Operation Condor is available now on UK Blu-ray and DVD from MediumRare Entertainment.
1Intriguingly, New Zealander’s Dwane van der Sluis and Andrew Akers allegedly invented the Zorb some three or four years later. Though their version is noticeably smaller, the air-cushioned plastic sphere is undoubtedly an identical design. #justSaying…
Distributor: MediumRare Entertainment (UK)
Edition: Blu-ray (2013)
Great to see the full length version on UK DVD and Blu-ray, as opposed to the Miramax English dub that was more widely available. This version contains both the original Cantonese soundtrack and the English dub. In comparison, the mix on the dub is pretty brutal – also cutting Jackie's vocals on songs during the film (which might be considered an improvement by some). Subtitles are good, but miss a few details, such as translating comic strip style bubbles.
The Blu-ray takes its transfer from the Hong Kong disc Fortune Star released in 2012. As such this release doesn't really hold up to the quality you might expect from a Blu-ray. The colours are vibrant, but the film is grainy, particularly in night and dark scenes.
Extras come in the form of two bizarre featurettes of clips taken from Jackie's films, themed 'comedy' and 'action'. Rather pointless, and the quality is rather low too, not even DVD.