A rare foray into the war film genre and a fan favourite, Sammo Hung’s “Eastern Condors” has stood the test of time as one of the best action films from the eighties’ “golden era” of Hong Kong films.
Sammo Hung assembled a virtual “who’s who” of some of the best talent in the Hong Kong film industry, years before Stallone did something similar with “The Expendables”! Sammo himself took the lead, ably supported by his “younger brother” from Yu Jim Yuen’s Peking Opera School, Yuen Biao.
Playing the film’s sinister but quirky villain with a tick, was another classmate of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, who had famously doubled for Bruce Lee’s double back somersault in “Enter the Dragon”. “Mr Vampire” and “The Prodigal Son” star, Lam Ching Ying, plays the senior officer who puts together the team and the plan for the “Eastern Condors”. Legendary martial arts choreographer and director, Yuen Woo Ping, appears alongside fellow choreographer, director, and Peking Opera veteran, Corey Yuen.
Sammo’s own wife, Joyce Godenzi, proves she is every bit as able as her famous husband, playing a guerrilla fighter. Haing S Ngor, famous for his Oscar-winning turn in “The Killing Fields”, gives the film a dramatic core. Other notable mentions include James Tien, veteran of many of Bruce Lee’s films; regular movie villain, Dick Wei; stuntman and regular Sammo Hung collaborator, Chin Kar Lok; Japanese action-legend, Yasuaki Kurata; Kickboxing champion, Billy Chow; veteran actor, Wu Ma, and comic actor, Billy Lau.
“Eastern Condors” takes it premise from the 1967 hit movie “The Dirty Dozen”, which starred Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. Moving the action from the Second World War to war-torn Vietnam: Chinese-American Lieutenant Colonel Lam is given a top-secret mission by the US military. He must destroy a secret bunker in enemy territory full of American missiles before the Vietcong reach it.
Not everyone is expected to survive the mission, so a team of expendable, convicted, Chinese-American soldiers is recruited, with the promise of a pardon and $200,000 each.
The team parachute in behind enemy lines, but Lam learns that the mission has been aborted before he can stop them. Left with no alternative, they continue with the mission anyway.
Once in enemy territory, our heroes team up with a team of deadly female guerrilla fighters, led by Joyce Godenzi. Taking refuge in a small village, they meet Weasel, played by Yuen Biao, and his mentally ill “Uncle” Yeung (Haing S Ngor), who claims to know the location of a secret “treasure”.
After a few skirmishes with the enemy, the squad are captured. In a tense scene reminiscent of “The Deer Hunter”, the prisoners are forced to play Russian Roulette with child soldiers. After a daring escape, they are pursued through the jungle to the bunker. Once inside, they face a final showdown with Yuen Wah’s giggling Vietnamese General and his cohorts.
Despite its war movie themes, “Eastern Condors” features some of the best Hong Kong stunts and fighting. You know from an opening scene featuring Lam Ching Ying, demonstrating his physical dexterity as he scales a flagpole, that this is not going to be your usual war film.
Sammo makes sure the female cast members feature just as prominently as the male ones. They make an eye-widening impact as they take out an enemy camp with deadly efficiency.
Yuen Biao’s introduction sees him demonstrate his gravity-defying agility and supreme kicking skills, as he takes on a gang of village thugs. Later, he has a nice team-up with Sammo, when they stealthily engage a jungle patrol in increasingly inventive ways, involving bungee jumps, machetes, coconuts and even coconut leaves!
Aside from the martial arts choreography, Sammo handles the traditional action stunts with equal skill. Taking cues from the “Rambo” films, soldiers and vehicles are blown up, our heroes leap from trees and cliff tops, and there is more bullet-dodging than in the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”!
The crowning glory of this movie is the final conflict between our heroes and Yuen Wah, and his team of stars from Hong Kong action films. Sammo wanted the fights to feel realistic, so many of the hits and kicks were done for real to illustrate their power. Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah have a great showdown, demonstrating their incredible timing, flexibility and acrobatics. Sammo has never been in better shape and proves to be just as agile as his co-stars. Everything from jeeps to gantries to staircases is used to bounce off, somersault over and launch kicks from.
The choreography is a mix of the spectacular and the brutal, some of it looking genuinely bone-crunching. The most impressive techniques are shot wide, going from slow motion to full speed, so that the audience can marvel at the technique and the timing in a single shot.
“Eastern Condors” is a genuine Hong Kong classic, and one of Sammo Hung’s finest achievements, especially for one of his “modern-day” themed movies.
More serious in tone than many of his films, all the cast members handle the dramatic scenes as well as they handle the action scenes. Even so, there is always a thin vein of dark humour running throughout the film.
The climatic end fight is one of Sammo’s best contemporary set-pieces. It is a real showcase for stars Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah, when still at the top of their game, and arguably even better than their battle in “Dragons Forever”. The fight choreography is always inventive and will leave you wondering how they did it without genuinely breaking bones or knocking each other out.
The film is well shot, although some of the night-time scenes are very dimly lit. The obvious nods to Western films like “The Deer Hunter”, “Rambo”, “The Wild Geese”, and of course, “The Dirty Dozen”, are well-handled, and never feel like a cheap rip-off, or spoofy.
If you are looking for ninety minutes of quality action, you can’t go wrong with this “Far East Expendables”!
- A stuntman was “blown up” for real when he mistimed his jump off a trampette with the pyrotechnics.
- Sammo happened to see some local Filipino villagers playing a game where they shot coconut leaf spines like arrows from their fingers. He used the idea as an ingenious way to silently dispatch the enemy!
- In order to get into shape for the lead role, Sammo lost 30lbs in three months on a diet of nothing but lean chicken and rice.
- Sammo injured his knees after missing the safety mattress during a 50ft jump and was told not to walk. To complete his scenes, he sat on an out-of-shot camera dolly and pretended he was walking, whilst a crew member pushed him along!
- Even though she is married to Sammo Hung, Joyce Godenzi didn’t receive any special favours during filming. Sammo pushed her as hard as everyone else to ensure her action scenes looked authentic.
Film Rating: 9/10