The Tattoo Connection (1978)
Director: Lee Tso-Nam
Writers: Hsin Yi Chang and Po Sheng Lu
Starring: Jim Kelly, Dorian Tan, Nami Misaki, Sing Chen
The Plot: After a gang of criminals in Hong Kong successfully pull off a heist that sees them retrieve a $3million diamond, Lucas (Jim Kelly), a world renowned “fixer,” is hired by the diamond’s insurance agency in order to track it down. Lucas heads to Hong Kong in order to find the diamond, but finds himself being tracked down by the bloodthirsty gang who currently holds onto the diamond. One of the key figures within this gang is Tung Hao (Dorian Tan), who is having a crisis of conscious and questions whether or not the gang life is right for him and the people that he cares about.
Where the lines cross between Bruceploitation and Blaxploitation, therein lies The Tattoo Connection. Featuring a title that obviously brings to mind images of Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection, and a cast and crew that absolutely screams with connections to Bruce Lee’s films, you certainly end up with a lot of loose strands but not a lot of connective tissue. Within the film you get music by Anders Nelsson, who had worked with Bruce previously and had a small part in Way of the Dragon. You’ve of course got Jim Kelly, the blaxploitation legend who also happened to co-star in Enter the Dragon. Even Bolo Yeung shows up in the film! The blaxploitation elements come into play simply due to Jim Kelly’s involvement and his charisma. The fact that overall, the plot is more of a general action vehicle that has some elements of intrigue, also seems fitting to the blaxploitation genre. While there are certainly some exploitation elements, Jim Kelly is more of a James Bond type of figure wrapped up in a plot made of twists and turns. Unfortunately, all of these interesting little bits do not make for a perfect film. Technical errors and plotting that leaves a lot to be desired makes for a wacky genre film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, but manages to deliver its best traits in a bare minimum sort of fashion.
Jim Kelly in his prime was a charismatic leading man that, despite his soft spoken demeanor, managed to stand tall and gather a huge audience for himself. Unfortunately, his abilities when it comes to dubbing in his own voice managed to deprive himself of a lot of that charisma for this film in particular. While Kelly’s performance here isn’t exactly “bad” per se, it just seems as if his dubbing was performed at about 3am on a week night – after he had taken about 100mg of Benadryl. His physical performance appears as if he’s having a solid time in Hong Kong, getting involved in all sorts of silly adventures. There are scenes with him dancing alongside stripping women, he looks dashing when wearing his suit and tie, and he delivers some great laughs along the way. However, even when uttering awesome dialogue such as “I’ve been known to be called the Black Six Million Dollar Man,” his dubbing doesn’t come through with a great deal of passion for the project. Starring opposite Kelly is Dorian Tan, the kicker so talented he earned the nickname “flash legs.” A frequent actor working in director Lee Tso Nam’s work, Tan is one of the best aspects of the film. A strong performance that is coupled with some amazing fight sequences, he is a standout here, but if you’ve seen The Hot, The Cool, and The Vicious, you already knew he had it in him.
The Tattoo Connection has a lot of issues within it, but notably the pacing and the technical aspects are what holds it back. For long stretches of the film the only thing that holds us to the screen is the intrigue of the plot and the performances in the film – and unfortunately, those elements are a little underwhelming. During these long sequences we have to deal with the stilted performance of Kelly who’s dubbing just doesn’t capture the energy that he no doubt had on set. The excitement and charisma on his face simply isn’t reiterated with the dubbing. So, instead we have a great deal of James Bond-esque procedural investigations going on, only without the charisma or adventurous spirit. Still, it isn’t all bad. The fish out of water story with Kelly performing his investigation, finding racism from the Chinese who don’t want him getting close, and the dichotomy between Dorian and Kelly in the film actually makes it quite cool to see how these two eventually intersect. In the climactic showdown, we do get that intersection between actors in an unusual turn of events that I won’t spoil – but I will say that the series of fights that takes place during this sequence, which takes place on a large ship, nearly adds an additional point to the rating for this film. Great stuff to be seen during this awesome climax.
Overall, Tattoo Connection is simply a middle of the road actioner. It doesn’t have a lot to be angry with, but there’s not a lot to celebrate here either. A solid cast that could have been better if there was synch sound during this production, and honestly if this film ever gets a nice upgrade – it may actually greatly benefit from this. Still, as it stands, I give the film a 3 out of 5.