Welcome to a new chapter of my series “Dee’s Asian Treasures”.
Mercenaries from Hong Kong (Lie mo zhe) (1982)
Directed by Jing Wong
Mercenaries from Hong Kong is one of the Shaw Bros.’ first forays into modern action movie fare, a movie that should serve as a template of how to make a proper and entertaining “Men on a mission”- movie. Sly, take notes.
Shaw Bros. logo. A dimly lit apartment in Hong Kong. The hero is introduced while he is still off screen, with a shot slowly panning over a collection of fire arms till it reaches framed pictures on the wall that show the protagonist in action during Vietnam war.
When the lead, Luo (Ti Lung), finally comes into frame, it is revealed that he is a typical early 80s badass in appearance, means he looks like a janitor with a receding hairline and a moustache but with a chiseled body. Naturally he is introduced with a short training montage, set to a pumping guitar soundtrack, showing him vigorously lifting weights in a dramatically lit room. A short introductory episode cements the audience’s assumption that he must be a tough guy. Luo is armed to the teeth and out to take revenge on a drug lord who is responsible for the death of a friend’s daughter.
He manages to shoot the scoundrel in his own penthouse, jumps through the window on a canvas cover of a perfectly placed truck and continues his escape from the drug lord’s thugs on a dirt bike. The chase ends with him jumping on a ship while the only follower left drives his car into the water, leading to one of the most typical shots of 70s and 80s action movies.
This movie starts out well and it never slows down for the rest of the run time.
Still being in hiding from the drug lord’s even more powerful dad, an unlikely client seeks out and approaches Luo with an offer for an assignment, namely Mrs He Ying, daughter of a recently murdered Hong Kong tycoon. Her first appearance is illustrated by yet another iconic shot of Hong Kong cinema, that is the image of identical, lined up cars facing the protagonist.
She wants Luo to return her father’s assumed killer, a professional killer called Naiwen, who also stole a valuable tape with business secrets, from his hideout in Cambodia to Hong Kong. Too bad Naiwen has joined one of two rebel groups that feud with each other in the jungle.
Recognizing the high reward as a chance to build up a new life, Luo agrees and promises to assemble a team whose members are daring and skilled enough for such a dangerous mission. Luo does what he has to do and recruits the best Vietnam veterans he knows, to form one unbeatable super-team.
Mercenaries has lots of things going for it, like an overabundance of action, a killer guitar soundtrack, lots of 80s atmosphere and so on, but it is completely devoid of one element: surprise. Even the ludicrous plot twists don’t come unexpectedly, but are all too familiar to everyone who has seen a “Men on a mission” movie or two.
Does that hurt the film? Not in the slightest.
Once the plot is rolling, a multi-course menu, consisting of every available genre cliché available, is dished to the eager viewer.
Indeed, every soldier for hire archetype is represented. There is the violent and unpredictable, yet efficient in combat loner, there are the taciturn sniper, the joker and the strongman etc, everyone introduced with a short flashback to his more or less heroic deeds in the Vietnam War to give us an impression of his particular skills. The unavoidable corny tearjerker side plot about the sniper accepting the job to finance a kidney transplantation surgery for his ill daughter shows that even the toughest guys have a soft core underneath that rugged hard shell.
First, Luo has to convince the veterans to give up their jobs as cook, mechanic and stage magician (!) amongst others. One guy -the ugliest one, ironically- seems to be living by bedding wives of rich old guys. Those scenes that show Luo extracting his old comrades from their mundane jobs make for some hilarious moments, especially when he tries to abduct the stage magician in the middle of a sword-trick performance on stage or when he saves the “womanizer” from being castrated with garden shears by the old husband who just had caught him in the act with his young wife. Hearing of the high reward – 1million HK dollars each – and feeling out of place in their working environment anyway, everyone of them agrees to join the suicide mission.
The next inevitable chapter is the obligatory “night before departure” scene, that shows them drinking their worries away in an exclusive club at the expense of their generous client, who also bought them matching tracksuits for some reason.
Due to Luo’s notoriety though, no well-deserved peaceful moment before the storm is granted to our heroes, as some thugs of the drug lord from the beginning of the movie turn up and involve them into a big brawl- there has not been an action scene for ten minutes, after all. After this interlude, the mercenaries finally set out to Cambodia.
Will the execution of the mission confront them with unexpected drawbacks? Is the target a dangerous, death-defying maniac? Will they be double-crossed by someone? You bet.
Sorry, I forgot to place a “spoiler alert”. My bad.
This glorious throwback to the rustic-style action epics of the early 80s should be to the taste of many people out there, because there is still a lot of discussion on the web circling around movies like Commando, Wild Geese or Missing in Action. It may have a lot to do with nostalgia, not least because most of us (mainly the male part of the internet population) grew up with these movies being shown on TV or at the theatres. The more calculated Hollywood movies become, the more we long for the “good old days” of action cinema. Taking a closer look, the movies of the “classic era” undoubtedly were also highly profit-oriented and formulaic, but nowadays they appear, aside from a few really reactionary efforts, almost innocent in their simplicity and with their unpretentious “Gung-ho” approach.
Mercenaries does not disappoint in the nostalgia department. It shows the 80s in all its wood-panelled, tracking suit-wearing and moustache-sporting glory. Many tropes and standard scenes from both Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema of that time found their way into the movie. The movie physics are at full effect, like small boxy cars that seem to flip over as soon as they drive over a road bump, men jumping from the 3rd floor of a house without breaking a bone or people running through crossfire.
Yet nostalgia isn’t all the movie has to offer. Shaw Brothers martial arts legend Ti Lung as Luo is a charismatic lead who traditionally performs his own stunts. Speaking of stunts, they are wildly spectacular while breaching all existent safety regulations as usual.
Some of the negative connotations that are attributed to this particular subgenre shine through though, that is the slightly reactionary undertone of such movies, reflected by a simplistic world view and some moments of juvenile sexism. Fortunately these bits of “macho angst“ are sparse, they are not overbearing to the tone of the movie and are easy to laugh at today.
Mercenaries from Hong Kong is a fun ride into the mythical times when men supposedly were the manliest of men (at least in the movies), rode dirt bikes and wore matching tracking suits.