Eastern Condors (Remastered) Review
Like many a film from the island of Hong Kong, Eastern Condors is undeniably influenced by western films that come before it. Sammo Hung's actioner is a mix of every Vietnam war film you can think of and I counted direct steals from The Deer Hunter and Rambo 2, with possible nods to even more. As a piece of knock off entertainment the film is lots of fun and even boasts a decidedly broad comic performance from Oscar winner Haing S.Ngor (The Killing Fields). Using these familiar influences, Hung gathers his usual collaborators together and delivers a cross between all those films and The Dirty Dozen. Most of all this is not a film to take seriously and any dramatic resonance or meaningful opinion contained herein is wholly unintentional! Taking its set-up directly from Robert Aldrich's original movie, a group of ten criminal Chinese American soldiers are sent to Vietnam to carry out a decoy raid whilst another posse carries out a real top secret raid. The ten are a motley crew of smugglers, murderers, robbers, and miscreants and the incentive for the mission is a second chance in life and a hefty reward. Once they parachute into Vietnam, the squad leader discovers the other mission has failed and he decides to take his men on the real raid with the help of the Cambodian underground that meet the squad once it lands. He is aided in this by Shawn, a wrongly convicted murderer played by Hung and by profiteer and smuggler Yuen Biao. They discover a former officer, Yung, and attempt to escape with him despite his mental breakdown and find themselves chased and the prey of the Viet Cong. As morale fails and the VC get closer, the former criminals show their true colours and an all out assault on the hidden silo is the only option left.
Easter Condors is not making any political points of any nature, it is simple escapism and adventure which happens to use the convenient backdrop of Vietnam. As an action movie it is possibly the most brutal that Hung has directed as we get to see beheadings, amputations, torture and endless explosions. Light moments of comedy are provided by Biao's dodgy dealings and some failed romancing of the Cambodian ladies but Eastern Condors is quite a gritty action movie with a heavy body count. The fights and gunplay are provided from various quarters and some of the best of this comes from the now Mrs Hung, Joyce Godenzi, as a Cambodian guerrilla. She high kicks and tumbles like the best of them and it is reassuring to find such a strong female character in a martial arts film. Towards the beginning of the film there is one breathtaking leap and stabbing movement from underneath a river which is truly stunning. Her toughness allows her to not merely be a damsel in distress but a formidable ally and a worse enemy. Yuen Biao gets an earring and trendy hairdo and he does some more of his foolhardy leaps and terrific airborne double kicks. Befitting the overall tone, Hung is a brutal earnest killing machine, and he is in the best shape of his career here. He gets to cause severe damage hand to hand, go mad with machine guns, and even to jump at least 40 feet into a moving truck. Sylvester Stallone never risked his neck like this.
The story and drama of the film are a little less impressive than its choreography and stunt work. Characters completely change with no warning in order to service the plot, and for a good 50 minutes I have to admit that I had no idea what their mission was. The film also contains another one of those cringing portrayals of mental ill health that irritates enlightened viewers more than it causes hilarity for those less bothered by political correctness - that you can win an Oscar and still be asked to act such a role is a sign of how poorly some actor's careers go. The film is also less than understanding towards the Vietnamese and sees them as mere gun fodder, a tendency which is a tad worrying for the more racially conscious of viewers. The story though is not exactly sophisticated and the screenplay is really a simple stringing together of familiar genre scenes and action set pieces such as the ambush on a bridge and the endless noble dying gestures. The basic concept of a government losing a whole weapons armoury is one that takes some swallowing, especially when the armoury seems to consist of the best intercontinental missiles known to man, this is hardly like losing your keys after all. Similar wackiness appears in the rather abrupt changes of heart of some characters whose whole motivation is flipped with no credible preparation because it suits the plot, and possibly in Ngor's case because he had just had enough of acting like an imbecile. The film also goes for overstatement in its recycling so the infant soldiers of the Viet Cong get to play Russian Roulette with the prisoners whilst the adults follow their orders, and Hung lops off a few limbs whilst wearing his improvised Rambo sweatband. There is even a spectacularly tasteless moment when Joyce Godenzi has her colleagues brains shot all over her face, and another scene where Biao skins a live snake which is preserved in the cut of the film here. Basically, thinking too much whilst watching Eastern Condors will severely limit your enjoyment, so my advice is to accept the hyperbole and treat it as a cartoon adventure.
That this shaky familiar framework works as well as it does is a tribute to the cast and Hung's conviction in his direction. Hung marshals numerous small parts for familiar faces like Yuen Wah and Corey Yuen and makes the non stop action diverse enough for it to remain interesting. His central players contrast well with Biao's lightness of touch and his own burning intensity, again Hung proves he is an accomplished actor. The copious bloodshed on the way allows the film to maintain some unpredictability and to keep the developments thrilling as we move from climax to climax. Eastern Condors succeeds in the end because it is a boy's own adventure where sense and sensibility cease to matter, buckle up and enjoy it.
This is a single disc release which comes in a glossy carboard dust sleeve. The print and transfer here are quite special. An anamorphic transfer in original aspect ratio which could not be sharper and a colour balance which means that flesh tones remain natural whether we are in the midst of arid locations, humid jungles, or a weapons silo. The black levels are also excellent and I would be surprised if existing DVD releases beat this presentation visually. The Cantonese surround sound is reasonably well distributed but seems quite flat in the centre of the surround tracks with dialogue not matching sound effects for spatial integration. The 5.1 track is punchier than the DTS, although they both use the sub woofer channel well, but both contain some Foley effects which don't match action on screen – sometimes they are half a beat off. The surround tracks do seem to have the music rather too low in the mix for my taste. I found the Mandarin track to be ill defined and lacking directional effects, it covers the speakers but it doesn't sound natural or clear. The disc includes the original mono track which is devoid of any imperfections and may prove preferable to the surround tracks for purists even if I preferred the 5.1 track. The English subtitles are excellent bar some small slips of grammar.
The extras are not impressive but the Japanese trailer proves interesting for having some footage of scenes shot in a military prison which don't appear in any versions of the film I know of. There are two further trailers for this film and three for other Joy Sales releases, and the obligatory stills gallery and slideshow. The only English subtitled extra is an interview with Yuen Wah who praises Hung's abilities as director of action and drama and calls him "better than Jackie". He also places the responsibility for his characters' silly laugh and fan gestures squarely with Sammo.
This is a fine uncut transfer packaged with a paucity of extras. The Korean release is uncut and has an interview with the director as does the cut Hong Kong Legends release, so if you want better extras those are better options. I found myself very satisfied with the treatment of the feature and I am sure this is a fine purchase for fans of the film.