Mission Thunderbolt

directed by Godfrey Ho
1983 / IFD Films and Arts Ltd. / ~90′
written by Godfrey Ho
director of photography Tony Fan
starring Jonathan Stierwald, Chan Wai Man, Steve Daw, Chan Kun Tai, Summer Dora, Tina Matchett, Philip Ko, John Ladalski, Melisa Tayor, Phoenix Chu, Shih Chung Tin, Johnny Shen, Rosie Lee, Tommy Lewis, Jack Yeungand Martin Cook
Unavailable for purchase – see the trailer on Youtube 

As was elucidated in the recent postscript update to my review of Robo Vampire, trying to pin down just which films from the low-budget Hong Kong pastiche eruption of the ’80s and ’90s (itself a reaction to the emergence of a vast foreign video rental market) were actually directed by Godfrey Ho can be a daunting task to say the least. The obscure corners of the internet are alive with rumors and speculation on the subject, and the desire to attribute all such films to a single entity has led to no end of misinformed articles (including some of my own) and erroneous IMDB listings. It’s bizarre to think that such wide ranging confusion has sprung up from what may well be the least important cinema movement in the medium’s history, but it’s a strange world, eh?

Still, those schlock-obsessed truth seekers among us are occasionally rewarded, and though the film in question today is of the dubious cut-paste-dub variety blindly attributed to him so often there is, for once, no question as to whether or not Godfrey Ho is responsible for it. Not only is his name there in the credits in big, bold letters (as writer and “chief director”), he makes a rare and uncredited appearance before the camera as well! Produced in 1983 strictly for the export market (it actually played theatrically in some territories), Ho’s Mission Thunderbolt is one of the earliest, if not the first outright, of IFD Films and Arts infamous pastiche productions, and while the gweilo ninjas so often associated with them are sorely absent it still makes for a hell of a brain-off time waster.

The plot, such as it is, concerns three Western assassins – a gunman, a brute (John Ladalski!), and a beauty – who arrive in Hong Kong to start trouble between the rival Serpent and Scorpion gangs. Interpol is having none of it, however, and put their Best Agent (Jonathan Stierwald in his only credited film appearance) to work hunting down both the assassins and their territory-hungry Boss (martial arts choreographer and sometimes producer / actor / director Philip Ko). Along the way Interpol’s Best Agent takes time to charm Cherry, who rewards him with a montage of steamy sauna lovin’ after he rescues her from a Halloween-masked madman. But all good things must come to an end, and after his beloved suffers a mysteriously fatal basket-bound water-dunking and beach-dragging Interpol’s Best Agent sets out not only to finish his assignment, but to avenge her death as well.

Meanwhile young shoe-shiner Allison (Lu I-Chan, here under an unknown pseudonym) is having gang troubles of her own. When her best friend Rosie is murdered by mobsters Allison swears revenge, and sets herself on a troubled path into the criminal underworld. She finds an unlikely friend in Phoenix (Chu Mei-Yam, as “Phoenix Chu”), matriarch of the Scorpion gang, who sees a kindred spirit in the young woman wronged. Soon Allison is doing dirty work for the Scorpions, putting pressure on the rival Serpent gang and their leader Hercules (the prolific Michael Chan Wai-Man, as “Chan Wai Man”) until Phoenix’s trusted subordinate Panther (Shut Chung-Tin, as “Shih Chun Tin”) turns double-crosser, revealing a conspiracy to overthrow the Scorpion empire and shining light on the identity of Rosie’s killer as well.

  
  
  

Perhaps two thirds or more of Mission Thunderbolt is devoted to the latter half of the synopsis above, courtesy of import source feature Don’t Trust a Stranger – a Taiwanese crime drama directed by Dung Gam-Woo (A Massacre Survivor) and released the year prior. Though some have speculated that IFD producer Joseph Lai utilized some treasure trove of unfinished film properties to generate his mountain of cut-and-paste efforts, the truth of the matter is less outlandish. IFD merely purchased the distribution rights to cheap foreign films that had already been produced (typically Taiwanese, Thai, or Korean efforts), and around the time of Mission Thunderbolt hit upon the idea of adding Caucasian material so as to make the properties more desirable to Western buyers. It was an idea that served Lai well through the rest of the decade, putting the IFD Films and Arts name on the shelves of video stores throughout Europe and America and earning him a mint in the process. It’s no surprise that producer Tomas Tang, a partner of Lai’s who started his own company after a falling out between them, took to aping the format. At the time Western audiences were rabid for taped entertainment, and with so much money to be made Tang was happy to give it to them. But I digress…

Though punctuated with some perfectly capable action set pieces, notably an early motorcycle chase and later night club brawl, Don’t Trust a Stranger is pretty rudimentary entertainment otherwise. While it would be a stretch to claim that the new footage contrived by writer / director Godfrey Ho is better, it is possessed of a certain hysterical edge that exponentially raises its entertainment potential. The juxtaposition of new and old is enough to delight in its own right, with Ho’s mustachioed avengers and hyper-kinetic action invading Gam-Woo’s comparatively sensible crime drama at every turn. The Don’t Trust a Stranger footage is ultimately just filler to keep audiences busy until Ho throws another crazy bastard development at the screen, and the the cursory attempts at connecting the two (like manufactured phone calls between the Taiwanese police and Interpol) aren’t enough to convince anyone otherwise.

As for said crazy bastard developments, Mission Thunderbolt offers more than its fair share of them. Ho treats his viewers to a seductress who kills with a mouthful of razor blades, a balding assassin on roller skates, and a tractor trailer ambush before the opening credits even roll, and things only get stranger from there (including a bizarre sequence in which a stray cat and rat are used as implements of interrogation). Even the casting is weird. Star John Stierwald looks more like a 7th grade science teacher than Interpol’s Best Agent, but Ho clearly believes in him – Mission Thunderbolt is chock full of glistening montages of his under-dressed adventures in exercising, never mind those escapades in the sauna. Things pan out in the inevitable combat sequences though, when Stierwald proves, against expectation, to be a bona fide badass. Leaping through the air with manic fury, gleefully performing his own stunts and showing a knack for martial arts choreography in the process, the man almost makes dressing like a Certified Public Accountant cool. Though former sword-and-sandal star Richard Harrison would replace Stierwald for future entries in the dubious Thunderbolt series (yes, there are more), the latter left an indelible impression – it’s a pity he’s never shown up in anything else.

Otherwise Mission Thunderbolt is full of that stuff that keeps borderline crazies like myself coming back for more – gaggles of post-dub atrocities, questionable editing choices, and an unlicensed musical score of epic proportions (including samplings of David Bowie’s Cat People, Toni Basil’s Hey Mickey, and Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell). Like the other pastiche pictures reviewed here, it’s a hell of a thing. Mission Thunderbolt rates as must-see Wtf-Film material, provided you can lay your hands on it.

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master

a.k.a. Zombie vs. Ninja / Zombie Rivals / Zombie Rival / Zombie Rival – The Super Master
Year:
1988   Company: IFD Films and Arts Limited   Runtime: 88′
Director: Godfrey Ho   Writers: AAV Creative Center, Godfrey Ho    Cinematography: Raymond Chang
Music: Stephen Tsang   Cast: Pierre Kirby, Dewey Bosworth, Thomas Hartham, Patrick Frzebar, Elton Chong,
Mike Wong-Lung, Jin Nu-Ri, Guk Ching-Woon, Kim Wuk, Cheung Chit, Kim Wong-Cheol, Park Wan-Su
Order the OOP VHS edition from Amazon.com

First things first – I’ve absolutely no idea what this little nugget of white-ninja mayhem is supposed to be called, and a quick Google search reveals that it has no fewer than five titles in English alone!  Even the IFD Films and Arts-produced English trailer appears confused, showing one title while the narrator reads another.  It seems pertinent to note that none of the five titles I found are terribly accurate, from the relatively straight-forward Zombie vs. Ninja on up.  As such I’ll be referring to the film by my favorite of the five, which also happens to be the most convoluted and nonsensical: Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master.

Never let it be said that Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho couldn’t come up with a good title (or five) when pressed for them.  Good films, however, seem to have been another matter entirely…

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master follows squarely in the footsteps of other Lai and Ho spectacles, and presents viewers with a more or less passable import feature that’s been cut to match a new story (in this case one written by the dubbing company!) and framed with all-new Ho-directed material starring an all-white cast.  In this case the results are particularly dubious but no less enjoyable for the trouble, with ‘stars’ Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth (of Thunder of Gigantic Serpent fame) looking well out of place in their shiny off-the-shelf fighting regalia and matching ninja head bands.  Remember kids, real ninjas wear head gear that says ninja.

"I think his name is Duncan... something..."

At its heart Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master is actually a fanciful South Korean martial arts comedy from 1983, The Undertaker From Sohwa Province, a film that unfortunately appears unavailable in its original condition (VHS and DVD releases under the title Gravedigger are reportedly sourced from the ZRTSNM edit, and lose the hilarious white-guys but retain the awful English dialogue track that refers to them).  The story for Undertaker follows a predictable arc, with an impetuous youngster witnessing the deaths of his parents at the hands of kung-fu baddies, then hooking up with a secret martial arts master so that he might learn the tricks of the trade and seek glorious kung-fu vengeance.

Though the story of The Undertaker From Sohwa Province will sound broadly familiar, the difference is really in the details.  The requisite kung-fu master is the eponymous undertaker, a scabby buck-toothed parody who raises the dead just for kicks and relishes nothing more than tormenting his young underling Ethan (that’s IFD Film and Arts’ name for him, not mine – he’s played affably by South Korean genre star Elton Chong).  Through the undertaker’s bizarre tactics Ethan somehow learns a fighting style that looks like the martial arts equivalent of dancing the robot.  If that’s what digging holes and carrying around coffins full of rocks all day can net you, then count me in!  It is in this source film that the only supernatural elements of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master are found, as the undertaker’s underling does practice combat with a variety of living corpses.  Peripheral characters also display unnatural abilities, as in the case of a female baddie who seems capable of disappearing at will.

There’s a lot of legitimate bemusement to be had with Undertaker‘s light-hearted material, which features Ethan sledding through a wintry forest on a coffin among other things.  The same cannot be said of the frequently profane post-dubbing applied by Lai associate ADDA Audio and Visual limited (who helped Joseph Lai bring knock-off pan-Asian animations like Raiders of Galaxy to English audiences), which is heaps of fun for all the wrong reasons.  I can’t imagine that there were more than a handful of personnel working the voice side of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master, but they get away with a range of improbable characterizations, from the shrill, squeaky undertaker to the arch and dramatic father of his pupil.  Adding to the hilarity are the highly inappropriate English names forced upon the characters – in addition to Ethan there are Bobby, Bert, Ira, Mason, Duncan and so on.

  
  
  

The competent (if incompetently presented) Undertaker is interrupted early and often by the new white-centric dramatics of Godfrey Ho.  The writing for these sequences fairs about as well as for the other dubbed material, often beginning mid-conversation (“…so that’s the plan”) and continuing on into dull and ambiguous pontificating about stolen gold and positions of power.  All of it would be quite drab and forgettable were it not being performed with such earnest by middle-aged white men running around the woods in cheap Halloween costumes.  Ho attempts, if only lazily, to intersect his new story with that of the appropriated footage, but the results are awful at best, with Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth speaking to characters obviously in other locations entirely.

When it comes to action Ho is a bit better equipped, even if the results are less than stellar.  Ho coaxes Kirby, Bosworth, and a larger cast of unrecognizable Caucasians into a slew of lightning-paced action sequences that have katanas clashing and men leaping about with maddening frequency.  It reminded fondly of the psychotic action direction seen in the Turkish exploitation of old, trampolines and all, and I wasn’t bothered in the least when Kirby was replaced mid-shot by a foot-shorter stunt double in an awful floppy wig.

Truth be told, I was at a complete loss for what to say about Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master until just this point, and now I think I’ve said more than enough.  There’s no arguing that it’s an immensely stupid, terrible film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoyed every minute of it.  Between this and the indescribable Robo Vampire I feel I’m quickly becoming one of the Ho faithful, and open to whatever dreadful implications that might imply.  Your mileage may vary, but if you only see one “bad white actors pretending to be ninjas” film this year it may as well be this one.

This review needed more Pierre Kirby. I make no apologies.

in conclusion
Film: Yeah, about that…
Final Thoughts: This is another martial arts pastiche of remarkable stupidity, but with Godfrey Ho involved we should expect nothing less.  I loved it, but may not be of sound mind.

Thunder of Gigantic Serpent

IDF Films & Arts Ltd [1988] 86′
country: Hong Kong
director: GODFREY HO
cast: PIERRE KIRBY, EDOWAN BERSMEA,
cast: DANNY RAISEBECK, DEWEY BOSWORTH

THUNDER OF GIGANTIC SERPENT (the IMDB lists the original title as DAAI SE WONG) is something I’ve known about for some time. I first stumbled upon an image of it while sifting around an old and now-defunct video trading page and wondered why I’d never heard of it before – more information was gleaned from MONSTRULA’s [monstrula.de] file on it under the German release title of TERROR SERPENT. Since then the film has become more or less readily available on the bootleg video market, with VHS and DVD dupes from a Greek VHS source cropping up on many lists online.

Other than those few sources, there’s not much to go on with this one other than intuition. The IMDB only recently added a page for the film, which is no wonder since precious little reliable information on the title or how it came to be is available.

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