Review Contributed by Prof. Aglaophotis

Return of the Tiger (1979)
Director: Jimmy Shaw
Writers: Chang Hsin Yi
Starring: Angela Mao, Bruce Li and Yi Chang

The Plot: We open on a gymnasium full of martial artists and acrobats practicing when a young woman bursts in and starts fighting everyone. Upon meeting the sub-man in charge, Peter Chen, the woman introduces her boss Chang Hung from Amsterdam. Chang Hung claims he’s come for the real head honcho, a rich, mobbed-up Westerner named Paul and that he’s out for revenge against him. While Paul and his right hand-man try to find out more about this mysterious Chang Hung, another martial arts tied mobster named Tsing Chi Sang wants to hire Chang Hung for his great fighting skills. But between two mob bosses, the mysterious Chang Hung’s motives become more and more complex, as both mob bosses secretly hate each other and are planning to use Chang Hung to their own means. Will either mob boss get what they want, or is Chang Hung up to something even the bosses won’t see coming?

The Review
When you say the words “Kung Fu Film,” you’re speaking a succession of words that roughly translate to something fun. No matter how dramatic or deep the movie tries to be, a Kung Fu Film is a Kung Fu Film all the way. There are some film themes that might deter from the full tilt martial arts experience though, be it Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’s art style or Kung Fu Hustle’s overuse of CGi, but rarely is it ever the plot that usually amounts to nothing more than exacting revenge or justice. That’s not entirely the case with Return of the Tiger, though: here we have a fun-filled martial arts flick with a heavy plot that just noticeably weighs the film down.

Return of the Tiger boasts some genuinely good choreography. This is due in part to the movie’s exceptional cinematography, as there are a lot of great mid-shots and close-ups showing every block and counter attack with great impact. The dodging and two man on one fights are incredible even when you can tell an actor or object is flying around on strings. Like every good Kung Fu film though, the final battle between Chang, Paul, Tsing and the henchmen is an amazing ride. The action beats are very well hit and it highlights the movie as a veritable good Kung Fu film. The man playing Chang Hung is damn good, with most of the flips and obstacle-clearing jumps going entirely to him. I get the feeling this is one of those Brucesploitation films that tried to cash-in on the Bruce Lee post-mortem fame, because the guy looks a little bit like Bruce, and even the movie even stars Bruce Li as well as Yi Chang who played The Baron from Exit the Dragon Enter the Tiger (here playing Peter Chen [oddly credited as Mr. Smith]).

Interestingly, there seems to be a kind of gray matter to all of the characters. The villains never do anything too villainous, and the heroes feel more like vigilante crooks. Paul isn’t a woman beating monster, Tsing isn’t a cruel exploitative man and Chang is similar to what Sonny Chiba would have been in The Street Fighter if his character had a conscious. It makes these characters believable and their individual sophistication makes them appear honorable, despite their organized crimes.

The actor playing Paul (ironically Paul L. Smith who played Mr. Booar in the Jackie Chan movie The Protector, Falkon in Red Sonja, Willard the janitor from Pieces and Bluto in the Popeye movie) isn’t too bad. For the most part he’s very stoic and seems like a very calm and collected crime boss. He never actually shines as a villain until the final battle when he starts beating people up in a comedic, but semi-effective, way. Watching the dude fight is kind of like watching Andre the Giant fight in The Princess Bride; it’s rather goofy watching the guy bitch-slap people into unconsciousness, but he’s big and burly enough to pull the effect off.

Speaking of goofy, there is one fight scene in particular that doubles as both unique and utterly preposterous. Even more so than the final fight. About an hour into the movie, Chang gets attacked by motorcycle thugs; while the scene invokes a lot of danger, the hits are at their loosest between every strike and the climax is inappropriately abrupt. The scene even has wicker baskets and cardboard boxes set-up for the occasion despite the fact the scene takes place in the middle of nowhere.

Despite the various martial arts battles, there is something off with the pacing. The action beats, while memorable, are spread apart from each other widely. The movie has this very ‘70’s Intrigue vibe to it in the same vein as Shaft or Detroit 9000, where there’s a long period of figuring out who’s doing what and what’s really going on. It’s not to say it’s boring, and it is necessary since it does serve in setting up the appropriate plot points, it just doesn’t make for a pulse pounding Kung Fu film. Kung Fu: Punch of Death felt like a Kung Fu film through and through, but this one is a bit more plot-heavy, and the end result is a feeling of disjointedness. There’s a promising brawl scene in a goods yard between Chang Hung and several henchmen, but when more henchmen arrive, the others just run away… prompting the newly arriving henchmen to do the same!

The soundtrack deserves a special mention here because the music is both pertinent to the times, and is nothing you’d expect out of a Kung-Fu/Martial Arts movie setting, but is overall perfectly fitting. Composed by experienced Martial Arts movie composer Fu Liang Chou, the soundtrack carries a very heavy 70’s vibe: from the catchy opening theme song to scenes of Paul’s henchmen, the funky 70’s orchestration and Wakka Chikka music does the action and drama some genuine favors. I’ve listened to a lot of forgettable orchestrated soundtracks in my time and a lot of them pertain to films and games of today; composers today could learn quite a bit from Fu Liang Chou’s work here… him and Alessandro Alessandroni. What makes the soundtrack really notable though is Chang’s Theme, which plays every other time the character appears on screen.

Chang’s Theme is rich with the heavy keys of a piano, a guitar that denotes intrigue, a thudding bass line of intimidation and a nice touch of violins. There’s even a nice character theme contrast where Paul and Tsing meet together with their men in the same room, and each boss entering the room with their men contrasts with each other perfectly. The soundtrack isn’t seamless though. There are some funny night club scenes where an Asian singer will clearly be singing along with a live band, but 70’s R&B is being played over him (thanks, localization team). That, and they throw in a soundtrack clip from Live and Let Die near the end. Why you ask? Because it’s a Chinese production and they can get away with nonsense like that. Kind of like how The Boxer’s Omen stole sound clips from Phantasm for no reason at all.

It isn’t until the final act that we learn who Chang and his helper really are, and how they play in this Karate Crime situation, but it’s a real disappointment when we do. It’s not that the twist is implausible, it’s just one of several predictable plot twists available to the audience. The plot twist is like figuring out what Gin Sung really is or guessing the ending to Majesco’s GunMetal: it’s right out there in the open, leaves no room for imagination and is the first option you would go for in a Multiple Choice quiz. The last minute twist regarding Chang and his assistant feels hollow, and while it makes some sense, it feels a little too convenient.

The Conclusion
This is one of those types of Kung Fu films that feels like it should be one of the high contenders within the genre. Return of the Tiger has got ambition, an intriguing story, ‘70’s style, some good action and is fairly well shot, but it sags somewhere along the way. That’s really not a bad thing though: Return of the Tiger is still an entertaining Kung Fu movie, and still very recommendable to anyone looking for a fun action film.

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