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 Yeung, and 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.