Iron Angels (Teresa Woo) - Moon Lee, Elaine Lui, Hideki Saijo, Yukari Oshima
If you're not concerned about Oscars, and are just after a damn good time, there is nothing as much fun as a good martial arts movie (to be honest, there is also nothing as tedious as a naff one, of which there are plenty. The fast forward button will be used heavily if you get interested in the genre!). They are virtually by definition 'bad' films, relying as they do on more or less completely gratuitous violence - the number that have achieved critical acclaim could be counted on the fingers of one hand without putting down your pint of Guinness. However, who needs Meryl Streep when Iron Angels delivers everything you could possibly want from a film: heady amounts of pretty Orientals kicking serious ass.
Don't know if director Teresa Woo is related to John Woo, who did The Killer - if not, they ought to be introduced since I'm sure they'd make a lovely couple. There are a lot of similarities in (high) style and (manic) approach: while The Killer used more rounds of ammunition, Iron Angels doesn't have quite as many sugary romantic interludes (boring!!!).
It's drug war time: the opening shots show the army teaching the locals to 'Just Say No' by shooting everything that moves, and blowing up everything that doesn't. This triumph is short-lived since it annoys the drug syndicates so much they bury their usual differences and start taking out the law enforcement agents responsible, as ordered by sadistic gang queen and martial arts mistress Madame Sue (Oshima, of whom more will be heard, mark my words!). One poor sod is neatly kebabbed by two motor cyclists, a sequence Ridley Scott would seem to have nicked for Black Rain, tho' since he's an "artist", his graphic-ish decapitation is a '15' certificate. Iron Angels, being mere exploitation, gets an '18' and bits cut out. Someone should send Ms.Oshima round to the BBFC for a chat...
All this is too much for the cops. Fortunately, a visiting American drug agent, Bill Fong, offers to finance resistance: "Money is our speciality this year". In come the Iron Angels: Kenji, a Japanese martial arts teacher, Helen, part-time nightclub singer and Mona, currently filling in time between jobs as a secretary. She's clearly bored by her work, distributing post with a deadly eye around the office by hurling it shuriken-style without leaving her desk. This accuracy extends to other office supplies - Teresa Woo pulls off something of a first by having a camera accompany a Tippex bottle as it flies through the air.
The bane of all videos, the dreaded pan-and-scan, strikes Iron Angels with some venom. No panning and very little scanning goes on leaving you with the middle 2/3 of the screen no matter what: one caption tells us we are at 'Kong International Air'. This reaches it's worst point during a scene in a bar: the characters conversing across a table are entirely missing, leaving the viewer with only the table and an empty chair as the discussion progresses. The stars' names endured some mangling in the credits as well: Moon Lee became Mona Lee, Elaine Lui is credited as Eliane Lui, and Yukari Oshima does a back flip to Oshima Yukari. Somehow, I can't see your average megastar happy to be billed as Streep Meryl. It's dubbed, but this is no problem as it's well done and is infinitely preferable to subtitles. In Hong Kong films, these are usually written from an out of date dictionary and no real experience of English - "I will" always becomes "I'll", regardless of context - compared to C4's series of Chinese Ghost Stories which used liberal, rather than literal, translation: I can't believe Mr.Vampire originally had the line "Don't let smoke get in your rice" (think about it!).
Back to the plot. Kenji cracks the case when he traps the insider who's giving information on the drug agents and applies to the traitor to get him to talk. I should point out the pressure is applied with a scrapyard car-crusher. Understandably, the victim gives way cracks splits talks. The Angels then break into Madame Su's office and photograph some papers in her safe, including an order for jewellery rabbits. When Madame Su finds out about this, she is slightly annoyed. The next stage sees Kenji and Mona staking out a landing dock, where some "fish" are arriving. It should not be a surprise when I tell you these fish are white and powdery. Under the cover of a cunning diversion by Mona (namely, driving her car as fast as possible at anyone in the area), Kanji steals the drugs. Madame Su becomes mildly peeved.
Since she wants her drugs back, a meet is arranged. The purpose of this escapes me, since she speaks to the Angels' director on a portable phone but it does allow a tracking device to be placed on her car, despite some nifty work with a tailor's dummy. Having found Madame Su's headquarters, Mona and Kenji go in under cover of another diversion, provided by Helen this time, driving up and acting the lost bimbo (the dubbing slips into Southern belle mode for this scene), with Bill Fong in her boot.
Up to this point, it's been pretty gentle stuff, nothing much more than an episode of Charlie's Angels. Things explode into action when Bill and Helen get their asses kicked by Madame Su, while Kenji and Mona sweep through the house in search of the kidnapped drug agents. Oh, did I forget to mention them? Well, so did the film... However, since the hostages are killed by a misplaced burst of machine gun fire, it's not important. At the end of all this mayhem, everyone escapes except Bill, who is left to face Madame Su, now best described as "seriously miffed". This turns out to be a clever ploy to keep an eye on Madame Su, since wherever Bill (and his tracking device) is, Madame Su will be. Sticking needles into him, to be specific. However, since he's financing the whole thing, they go in and rescue him, accompanied only by a helicopter, a death slide and more small arms than your average Central American banana republic would dream of. There are many explosions, a lot of broken glass and Bill gets rescued. The mental state of Madame Su, I leave to your imagination.
Since Madame Su's gang has been decimated, is this the end of the mission? No: to quote John King, "Money isn't the only thing - there's integrity". An odd phrase coming from the leader of a team who two minutes previously were happy to dampen the explosive effect of a grenade by dropping one of the opposition on it. And even odder, since the next thing they do is kidnap the daughter of Madame Su's lieutenant, in order to extract information from him. All he can say is that Madame Su is planning something big and that four numbers are the key. After Helen casts aspersions on his loyalty, Bill goes undercover looking for Madame Su, to find out what the numbers are. Since this consists of him walking down the street shouting "I'm looking for Madame Su", it rapidly has the desired effect and once again he's taken prisoner. Ah, but this time he's concealed a mini-pistol in his shoe. No luck. She distracts him with a flash of her chest (it's no surprise this is a success given the rarity of female flesh in the genre - it does look suspiciously like a stunt breast, however) and it's needle time once again. Madame Su makes the fatal mistake of telling him the numbers - 1, 9, 8 and 7 - and he communicates them to the rest of the team with a transmitter hidden in his other shoe.
But what does it mean? Kenji susses it, while sitting in a bunny bar: 1987 is the year of the rabbit so (an impressive leap of logic this) Madame Su is planning to rob a bullion van and export the gold disguised as little gilt bunnies (remember the invoice in paragraph 7?). And yep, this is exactly what happens, the van driver is in her pay and after the accompanying police have been disposed of i.e. blown up or shot, he drives the van to a building site. He'd clearly forgotten the old Chinese proverb "Never trust a woman whose chief entertainment is sticking needles into people", and so he, and the van, end up at the bottom of a large pile of concrete, which baffles the police somewhat. Kenji, accompanied by the usual tracking device, was hiding in the back of the van and when the thieves arrive to pick up their loot they find it accompanied by a slightly out-of-breath Iron Angel. The reappearance of his tracking device alerts the police and, hey presto, one half of the gang is captured. Helen and Mona, meanwhile, have tracked Madame Wu to a gold smelter and I'm sure you can guess what happens next...
Mayhem. Exploding buttons. Acid-squirting belt buckles. Forklift-fu. Unnecessary use of metal poles. The effective termination of Madame Wu in a fairly spectacular manner. And that's about that, save the discovery that Bill Fong is still alive despite being turned into a human watering can.
This is really the third movie in a series, which is both a benefit and a handicap. On the plus side, scene-setting and character development are minimal, leaving more time for action. On the other hand some things, like the exploding buttons, are taken for granted, and the viewer is required to tolerate more plot inconsistencies than would be considered reasonable under normal circumstances. It's a bit like seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 without knowing anything about Freddy Krueger. Those of you familiar with Japanese comics may know the Lovely Angels, aka the Dirty Pair, a duo of agents notorious for solving problems with the maximum impact possible. Iron Angels resembles a live-action version of this: fast-moving, possessing no respect for property and a bizarre sense of style and fun. Idiotic, ridiculous and mindless? Probably. But who cares?
Shortly after writing this piece, I discovered it's not the third in the series, it's the first of three, which makes the lack of character development all the more endearing...
More indeed was heard of Yukari Oshima, who became one of the leading lights of femme fatale HK cinema, before vanishing into micro-budget dreck. But a comeback may be on the cards! See this overview of her career.
Miles Wood points out, "Actually Oshima Yukari is correct, as would be Kurosawa Akira, but we Westerners are unable to come to grips with these Asians who list their family name first and consequently Westernise them....the reason that this practise has become the standard is because most Japanese accepted that "we" would never get it right (how many times have you seen professional reviewers refer to Mr. Hark?!) and "flip" their names for Western film credits. Funnily enough a couple of my HK credit cards read Wood Miles!"
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