A Book of Heroes (1986)
Director: Chu Yen-Ping
Writers: Sit Hing-Kwok, Chu Yen-Ping
Starring: Elsa Yeung, Pauline Lan Hsin-Mei, Yukari Oshima, and Kurata Yasuaki

The Plot: A Book of Heroes begins, as many great films do, with a bar fight. We first meet one of our main protagonists, a fiery young wannabe policewoman (played by Pauline Lan Hsin-Mei), who tries her best to break up a heroin deal, but is stopped when the evil lawyer Chu steps in and saves his group of thugs. It turns out that Chu happens to work for our principal villain, Oshima Yamashita (played by Kurata Yasuaki). Our young wannabe policewoman ends up getting her cop boyfriend, Hu Pai, in trouble with his commander. It seems Hu Pai has been given 32 missions since joining the police force and so far he has not cracked a single case. His latest debacle has come from his inability to stop a group of gangsters who pulled off a massive gold heist right in front of him. Unknown to Hu Pai, this gold heist was directly overseen by the nefarious Oshima. At the same time that Hu Pai is being punished for his terrible policework, we are introduced to a pair of con-artists named David (David Tao) and Yang Shan Shan (Elsa Yeung). These two inevitably become embroiled in Oshima’s gold smuggling business when they become hip to a map that leads to the location of all the gold. So, now it seems to be up to this very awkward group of four, and one uninitiated gas station attendant who is picked up by David and Yang Shan Shan, to put an end to these evil smugglers! Unfortunately, to do that they will have to battle Oshima and his two powerful bodyguards. One of which is played by the lovely Yukari Oshima, who may be the toughest of them all… but she also holds a mystery that will eventually unfurl.

The Review
Although I have reviewed many different movies on Varied Celluloid over the years, there are few areas that I have been so immediately drawn to like the girls with guns genre. When it comes to movies starring Moon Lee or Yukari Oshima, I am almost always up for the adventure. These two actresses, along with Cynthia Khan and Michelle Yeoh, gave so much of themselves when starring in any action role that you can almost choose any title from their filmography at random and find something absolutely inspired. An early entry into the “girls with guns” genre, if you even want to consider this Taiwanese film as part of that cannon, Book of Heroes is not a film that is highly regarded by many. It is heavily inspired by the Golden Harvest films of the era, and it attempts to do what Jackie Chan did with the Police Story series, but it also manages to incorporate the silliest comedic moments from My Lucky Stars (a film that I have never been a huge fan of). Featuring the amazing Yukari Oshima in the role of her stock character (evil Japanese henchwoman), the movie also features lesser known actresses Pauline Lan Hsin-Mei and Elsa Yeung who both prove themselves to be remarkable talents. An undiscovered gem in some circles, this is Book of Heroes and it is awesome.

Although I am bound to tear into the comedy found in A Book of Heroes, I must confess that the humor does have a few “hits” to go with all of the “misses.” There are actually some very fun gags pulled throughout the duration of the movie. For instance, a scene that actually works is the high stakes poker game that happens during an early scene within the movie. During this scene we see a child walking around a group of gwailos, looking at their cards, and then clearly signaling to the beautiful hustler played by Elsa Yeung. The scene is played in a very cutesy manner, but the sequence becomes utterly surreal as the poker game breaks out into a fight and we then see this four year old little boy take part in the action while doing backflips and counting his cut of the loot. This is that sort of movie where the comedy may not be superb or witty, but it’s corny enough that it can occasionally be admired for its camp value. While nowhere near the “big hairy moles and crossed eyes” level of low brow humor, this is a movie that does try to go for a few quick and easy laughs along the way. Unfortunately, this causes the movie to get into more trouble than it really should. There are bits that will cause audiences to shake their head in disapproval, and the finale starts to stack the jokes higher and higher. If the action wasn’t so fantastic, the entire movie would probably crumble under the weight of all of these bad jokes.

The action found in Book of Heroes is the main selling point here, there’s no question about it. Whereas the comedy may occasionally overstep its boundaries and the film inevitably starts to feel like a madcap ensemble comedy, but as soon as an action scene pops up – viewers are instantly reminded why they should be watching this film. The movie is an absolute smorgasbored of undercranked (a term referring to action choreography that has been slightly sped up) action. The choreography is brutally violent and extremely fast, and every member of the cast gives it their all. Most of all, the stuntmen of Hong Kong/Taiwan once again manage to scare even the most jaded viewers. Included amongst these stunts, we see a bit where a man stands on a pedestal directing traffic while a car flips and goes vertical only a few unsafe feet away.

Kurata Yasuaki (Fist of Legend, Blood Fight) shows up as the quintessential villain. He’s so evil that he even has a white cat that he keeps in his lap so that he can pet it whilst doing his nefarious deeds. Kurata, the intense actor that he is, seems as if he didn’t get the message about what type of movie this was. Where every other performer is doing their best to ham it up and take their characters to a level that is so over-the-top that they would stand out even in a cartoon, he comes across as a truly menacing presence when he hits the screen. Even when he is stroking his pet cat, a riff on the James Bond movies no doubt, he still has the grimace and the attitude that makes him a despicably intimidating hulk of a man. Having the formidable opponent Yukari Oshima standing by his side surely doesn’t hurt his fearsome persona. The two female protagonists, Elsa Yeung and Paulin Lan Hsin-Mei, were both Taiwanese actresses who did not become staples of the Girls With Guns genre, unfortunately. Elsa Yeung is the better known actress of this pair, having worked extensively in the Taiwanese film industry going back to the seventies. Pauline Lan Hsin-Mei, however, was an actress who ultimately seems to have made most of her career acting in the television market and through the music industry. When watching this film, however, one would not immediately picture this. Neither actress seems rusty or out of their element. Indeed, the first fight sequence shared between Pauline Lan and Yukari Oshima is absolutely bonkers in its intensity. These girls tear up the screen, and as the film moves along they do more and more to impress the viewers.

The Conclusion
There may be some viewers who are going to hate me for this, but A Book of Thieves is going to get an excellent rating from me. How could I do this when the comedy is so corny? For my money, it doesn’t hinder the movie enough to take away from the few jokes that do work and the spectacular action. The movie puts together numerous show stealing fight sequences and dramatic stunts that make it a must see as far as I am concerned. Definitely give it a shot if the opportunity is open for you, because this is a solid four out of five.

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