Action Adventure movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

MR. NICE GUY. A Raymond Chow/Golden Harvest Production, Hong Kong, 1997; first released as Yat goh ho yan. New Line Cinema, US, 1998 (dubbed). Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Miki Lee, Karen McLymont, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick. Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung.

   I don’t think it’s going out on a limb for me to state that one usually doesn’t watch Jackie Chan movies for the intricate plots and captivating dialogue. No. One watches them for their action sequences, superbly timed humor, and their extraordinarily well-choreographed martial arts moments.

   It’s also very difficult not to like Jackie Chan as both a performer and as a person. He seems, well, like a nice guy.

   In Mr. Nice Guy, Jackie trades on that persona and portrays a fictionalized version of himself as a Melbourne-based television cooking show host. But it doesn’t take too long into the film to realize that he’s agile both with the kitchen utensils and with his fists.

   The story follows Jackie’s chivalrous attempts to protect both a television newswoman and his girlfriend from a drug cartel and a street gang. In a somewhat ludicrous plot device, Jackie accidentally ends up with a videocassette that depicts a drug deal gone awry between the two aforementioned criminal elements. The tape falls into the hands of the grandchildren of his co-host. Oh, and guess what? His co-host’s son just happens to be a cop.

   You can see where this is heading.

   But as I said at the outset, one doesn’t watch movies like this for the plot.

   It’s all about the action, the fights, the stunts, and the sheer excitement of watching Jackie Chan punch, kick, and swing his way around Melbourne’s city streets, construction sites, and apartment blocks. It’s a great, thrilling ride from beginning to end. There are some particularly amazing stunt sequences, including a lengthy chase on an apartment building top and another in a half-constructed building.

   Mr. Nice Guy isn’t a movie you need to think a lot about. It’s just a lot of fun. Look for the cameo of the Hong Kong New Wave director, Sammo Hung, as a bicycle courier. It’s a great little scene in a great little action film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FLAME OF ARABY. Universal International, 1951. Maureen O’Hara, Jeff Chandler, Maxwell Reed, Lon Chaney Jr., Buddy Baer, Richard Egan, Royal Dano, Susan Cabot. Director: Charles Lamont.

   Imagine you’re pitching a movie project about a Bedouin tribesman in an obsessive pursuit of a wild black stallion. And that Bedouin happens to fall in love with a Tunisian princess threatened by her malevolent cousin.

   Now, ask yourself: whom would you want to see cast for the two leading roles?

   Perhaps you’d consider choosing a Brooklyn-born Jewish actor less than a decade out of U.S. military service and a redheaded Irish actress perhaps best known to the public for her starring role in Miracle on 34th Street. Then you’d think to yourself: nah, that couldn’t work. That wouldn’t work.

   But you’d be wrong.

   In Flame of Araby, an entertaining work of pure escapism, Jeff Chandler stars as Tamerlane, a Bedouin chief in hot pursuit of a wild black stallion in the North African desert. His pursuit is initially interrupted when he is forced to save the Tunisian Princess Tanya (Maureen O’Hara), from a horse stampede. The push and pull, loathing and attraction, between these two characters propel this adventure story forward.

   Joining these two major Hollywood stars on their wild gallop through an Arabesque fantasy world are Lon Chaney Jr. and Buddy Baer, who portray two Barbarossa brothers in competition for Princess Tanya’s hand in matrimony. Chaney definitely plays it to the hilt, making Borka Barbarossa a memorable, although not particularly evil, big screen villain. He seems to be having fun with this character, making him just a delight to watch.

   Now I’m not going to say that Flame of Araby is somehow a neglected classic or a gem hiding in plain sight. In many ways, it’s quite dated and doesn’t stand up to the test of time all that well. The costumes occasionally appear more silly than stylish. And some of the dialogue, including the overabundant usage of the term “wench,” while not particularly offensive, only detracts from the narrative and visual flow of the production.

   Still, there’s something to be said for a time when Hollywood studios were turning out innocently fun adventure tales that successfully transported the viewer to foreign, exotic locales, desert lands that never truly existed outside the imagination of poets and artists from long ago.

A YANK IN LIBYA. PRC, 1942. Walter Woolf King, Joan Woodbury, H. B. Warner, Parkyarkarkus (Harry Parke), Duncan Renaldo, George Lewis, William Vaughn, Howard Banks, Amarilla Morris. Director: Albert Herman.

   There is no movie so bad that someone leaving a review on IMDb won’t call it a Poverty Row Classic. (Check it out.) This isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen, but it’s in the bottom dozen. The only reason I kept watching it — well, two actually — was the presence of two actors whose performances I found far and away above the rest of the cast.

   The first was Joan Woodbury, far from being well known, but whose good looks and charm on the screen always delight me, and the second was a veteran radio actor named Parkyarkarkus, aka Harry Einstein, who I’d never see in person before. On radio he played a pseudo-Greek character on several comedy variety programs, including Eddie Cantor’s and Al Jolson’s as well as a short running one of his own called “Meet Me at Parky’s.”

   In A Yank in Libya he plays a jovial heavy-set seller of razor blades in a Libyan marketplace, clad in Arab garb as a far-fetched transplant from Brooklyn, added (one presumes) for comedy relief, but as time goes on, he seems to know more and more about what is going on than the hero does.

   Which entails a Nazi attempt to incite the Muslim tribal leaders to rebel against the British rule. Walter Woolf King (whose name I don’t ever remember seeing on the screen before) is a reporter who uncovers the plot, a brash sort of know-nothing role, while Duncan Renaldo plays the tribal leader most friendly to the British, and rather unconvincingly, to my eyes.

   It occurs to me to add that most of the other players in this film do a better than average job of it. It’s the story that lets them down, a patchwork affair fastened together by good wishes and duct tape, that and the abysmal budget they must have had to work with. The list of cast members is a large one, but if there are more than five people on the screen at any time, the footage was swiped from another movie.

   But one last note. If you think you’d be interested in seeing this movie, I’d suggest using the video link embedded above. It’s free, and the sound quality, the small amount I’ve watched of it, is tremendously better than the version on DVD from Alpha Video, which I paid an almost reasonable four dollars for.


THE SEA HAWK. First National Pictures, 1924. Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace MacDonald, Marc MacDermott, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Medea Radzina, William Collier, J. Lionel Belmore. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The Sea Hawk was a substitution for the originally scheduled L’Argent (1929; Marcel L’Herbier, director) L’Argent was certainly the film I was looking forward to with the most anticipation. However, although I’d seen The Sea Hawk more than once and have a Turner showing on tape, I didn’t miss the opportunity to watch it again.

   Some of you will be familiar with the Errol Flynn remake (WB, 1940), although the silent version is more faithful to Sabatini’s novel than the later version, which eliminates the extensive Moorish section that’s one of the glories of this film.

   When Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) is betrayed by his villainous younger brother and delivered into the greedy hands of rascally Jasper Leigh (Beery), his Christian upbringing is so damaged by his sense of outrage that when he falls into the hands of Moorish pirates, he quickly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the “Sea Hawk,” Muslim scourge of the high seas, and the favorite of Asad-el-Din, Sasha of Algiers, much to the chagrin of the Sasha’s favorite wife and heir apparent son.

   Enid Bennett, the lovely star of Hairpins, and Sir Oliver’s intended bride until his betrayal, is imprisoned in unbecoming costumes that mask her beauty until she’s captured by Moorish pirates (guess who?) and put up for auction, her clothes in tatters that reveal something of her native charms, and sold to… guess who again?

   Beery is a rascal, but lovable, and Sills is a splendid corsaire, with a focused rage that distinguishes his portrayal from that of the rakish, devil-may-care Flynn. I like both portrayals and both films.

   Now, the downside: this was, for much of the screening, an inferior print that only occasionally incorporated a reel of superior quality, most notably during the Moorish episodes. Of course, I missed the great score that Korngold composed for the sound remake, but the accompanist was more than competent.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WEST OF SHANGHAI. Warner Brothers, 1937. Boris Karloff, Beverly Roberts, Ricardo Cortez, Gordon Oliver, Sheila Bromley, Vladimir Sokoloff, Gordon Hart, Richard Loo. Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne. Director: John Farrow.

   West of Shanghai is overall an enjoyable, although occasionally stilted, drama/action film starring Boris Karloff with Beverly Roberts and Ricardo Cortez. Directed by John Farrow, whose movie adaptation of David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun I reviewed here, the film stars Karloff as a Chinese warlord by the name of Wu Yen Fang.

   Fang’s an interesting fellow, that’s for certain. He’s brutal, yes, but he’s also got something of a heart of gold and a sense of humor to boot. One can’t help but smile when he repeats, with a gleam in his eye, his self-assured catchphrase, “I’m Fang” as a means of explaining of how he can get away with the seemingly improbable or impossible.

   Perhaps one reason this movie isn’t as well known today is that Karloff is made up to look Chinese. He also speaks in broken English, taking us many degrees away from politically correct territory. Still, Karloff’s an absolute pleasure to watch, demonstrating once again that the classically trained English actor really had incredible acting skills.

   Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne, West of Shanghai is an adventure film, a thriller, and a comedy of manners all in one. The story follows two business competitors, Gordon Creed (Cortez) and an older man named Galt as they travel north in China in the hopes of gaining business influence over an oil field overseen by Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver). It should come as no surprise that among the film’s subtexts is a slightly comical, but also deadly serious, critique of American industrialists and human greed. At one point, the power hungry general tells Galt that the latter cares too much about money. Ouch.

   Complicating matters even further for the businessmen is not only Fang’s growing military and political influence in the region, but also the fact that Creed’s estranged wife, Jane (Beverly Roberts), is both a missionary in the region and currently in love with Jim. Add to the mix Galt’s headstrong and quite beautiful daughter, Lola (Sheila Bromley), and you’ve got yourself some great human drama in an exotic setting.

   All told, I found West of Shanghai to be an enjoyable picture with a lot in terms of plot and style to recommend it. Karloff is great as Feng and Cortez portrays the slimy, double-crossing, Creed really well. Vladmir Sokoloff’s portrayal of General Chow Fu-Shan is literally cut short when his character is killed by one of Feng’s assassins, but he’s also quite good as far as character actors go.

   I’d hesitate to call West of Shanghai a great film, but at a running time of slightly over 60 minutes, it’s never dull and Farrow’s direction is solid. The movie’s no classic, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out even if for novelty value. They don’t make films like this anymore. But just because they really can’t, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth appreciating those that remain and enjoying them on their own terms.

THE NAKED JUNGLE. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Eleanor Parker, Charlton Heston, Abraham Sofaer, William Conrad. Based on the story “Leiningen versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson (Esquire, December 1938); first published in Germany in 1937 as “Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen.” Director: Byron Haskin.

   Fans and collectors of Old Time Radio shows will recognize the story this film is based on immediately. “Leiningen versus the Ants” must be among everyone’s all time Top Ten list of favorite episodes. It was produced at least four different times, on Escape 14 Jan 1948, 23 May 1948, 4 Aug 1949, and on Suspense, 29 Nov 1959. You can hear an MP3 version of the first of these here.

   The radio version follows the story itself quite faithfully, that of a stubborn bull-headed plantation owner in South America who refuses to move away from his land in the face of a swarm of deadly ants two miles wide and ten miles long. The only difference is that in the radio version the District Commissioner returns to Leiningen’s compound to see whether (and how) he can make good on his promise to prevail against the deadly horde. He also helps provide half of the necessary narration.

   The story can be read in twenty minutes, and it takes thirty minutes to listen to the radio show. How then is the running time of the movie some 95 minutes long? Easy. Add a preamble about an hour long, one introducing a mail-order bride to the tale, a lady from New Orleans previously unseen by Leiningen.

   Charlton Heston is of course the obvious choice to play Leiningen, a fellow as stubborn and ignorant of the ways of women as he was later on in his portrayal of Captain Colt Saunders in Three Violent People (1956), which I reviewed here not too long ago.

   Of course it could only happen in the movies that the mail-order bride would be as lovely as Eleanor Parker, but leave it to Charlton Heston’s character to reject her almost immediately, once he learns that she has been married once before. (He prides himself on having only new items in his house, including a piano, which of course the new Mrs. Leiningen is able to play, and quite well)

   All in all, it’s sort of dull romance, and you just know that once the danger is over, the two of them will find a way to sort things out between them, if not before. In my opinion, as long as you’re asking me, the time the romantic problems take up could have been shortened considerably, thus giving us more time with the ants. (Some of us, who know full well what is coming in advance, may even be squirming in our seats in anticipation.)

   The special effects are quite good, I hasten to add, and well worth the price of admission. So good, in fact, that I recognized some of the footage as being used again in an episode of the TV series MacGyver, “Trumbo’s World” (Season 1, Episode 6; 10 November 1985).

   And oh yes, one other thing. William Conrad, who played Leiningen in the radio show that I hope you took (or will take) the time to listen to, played the role of the District Commissioner in The Naked Jungle.

  Overall verdict: Medium well but no more.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DAVID DODGE – Plunder of the Sun. Random House, hardcover, 1949. Paperback reprints: Dell #478, 1951, mapback edition; Hard Case Crime, 2005.

PLUNDER OF THE SUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Glenn Ford (Al Colby), Diana Lynn, Patricia Medina, Francis L. Sullivan, Sean McClory. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the book by David Dodge. Director: John Farrow.

   Sometimes, it’s a whole lot of fun to plunge into an adventure story, replete with intrigue, shady characters, and historical references to ancient civilizations. And gold. Sadly, stories with plots focusing on the search for treasure in exotic locales are not written very much anymore. Perhaps they are considered passé; perhaps there just aren’t enough contemporary readers for these yarns.

   But if this type of fictional adventure does happen appeal to you, you really can’t go wrong with Plunder of the Sun. Written by David Dodge, author of To Catch a Thief, the story follows the South American treasure seeking adventures of American expatriate Al Colby, our first person narrator. It’s both a fun little suspense tale and an introductory course in Peruvian geography and history.

   The book’s opening places the reader right into the heart of the action. The story’s narrator, Al Colby, is in Santiago, Chile, where he meets up with Alfredo Berrien, a sickly man in a wheelchair, and his nurse, Ana Luz. Berrien has a proposition for Colby. He wants him to transport a small package on board a ship heading from Valparaíso, Chile to Callao, the Peruvian seaport. Once there, Colby is supposed to return the package to Berrien and to get paid.

   As you might imagine, things don’t go quite as planned. After a series of potentially sinister characters show up on board the ship, Berrien is found dead in his cabin. Naturally, Colby becomes curious as to what’s in the package. Turns out it contains parchment fragments that tell, you guessed it, of buried treasure.

   The rest of the novel follows Colby in his quest to decipher the manuscript and to deal with a scheming man from the boat named Jeff. He also runs across Naharro, a Peruvian expert in antiquities, and his son, Raul. There’s also Julie, who was originally also on the boat and manages to be around at both the wrong and right times. There’s plenty of scheming afoot, a deal made, and a double cross. Plus Colby may or may not have feelings for Ana Luz.

   Al Colby’s an interesting character, but the real star of the show is Peru. Dodge clearly knew the country well. His descriptions of the places, the people, and the culture all give Plunder of the Sun an authenticity that many other adventure tales from the era lack. There are numerous references to Incan history, particularly the Spanish conquest of Peru. The work is also filled with what I presume to be Peruvian-dialect Spanish.

   Given how central Peru is to the book’s plot, I was skeptical when I learned that the film adaptation, directed by John Farrow, was set in Oaxaca. I expected just another adventure film set in Mexico. I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed.

   There is no doubt that Glenn Ford was well cast as Al Colby. He’s a good actor and he plays the role convincingly. Likewise, Patricia Medina portrays Ana Luz well. Sean McClory portrays the villain, Jeff, as Jefferson, a serpentine creep who slithers his way in and out of Colby’s presence.

   Setting the film in Oaxaca rather than in Peru allowed the filmmakers to shoot on location. Turns out that was a great decision. There are some amazing visuals in the film, managing to give the viewer a glimpse into the ruins without making the film seem like a documentary.

   And although it’s not a film noir, at times Plunder of the Sun does feel like one. There’s a claustrophobic aspect to the film, particularly in the first half. This is notably the case when Colby (Ford) first meets the wheelchair bound Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan). One wishes that Sullivan’s character didn’t have to die so quickly, for he seemed to be one of the more intriguing personalities in the story.

   The problem is this. After a great setup, the story just kind of plods along, notably during the second half of the film. Colby and Jefferson fight, they make up, they fight again. It all just gets a bit tedious. Indeed, without the on-location setting, the film really wouldn’t be particularly interesting.

   As it is, the book tells a much more fascinating story than the movie manages to tell. The film adaptation of Dodge’s work, despite a screenplay by veteran mystery writer Jonathan Latimer, somehow comes across as being both rushed and somewhat dull, turning what could have been a very good movie into a slightly above average adventure film. The film tells Colby’s story in what are supposed to be flashbacks or reminiscences. It’s a narrative technique that doesn’t quite work in this context, giving the movie less a sense of immediacy than the book.

   In conclusion, David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun is a fun, engaging read. It’s steeped in Peruvian geography and history, with well-developed characters, and enough mystery and intrigue to keep one guessing as to what is going to happen next.

    While the film version isn’t bad, it does come across as something of a missed opportunity. The Oaxaca scenery does, however, almost makes up for the fact that the screenplay isn’t as strong as it could have been. Almost.

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