|Index||4 reviews in total|
THE FOUR ASSASSINS (aka MARCO POLO, 1975) is that rare Hong Kong kung
fu film which features a westerner in a pivotal, heroic role. Set at
the time of Italian explorer Marco Polo's historic expedition to China,
during the reign of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, it stars American actor
Richard Harrison as Polo. Taking considerable liberties with the
historic record, the film has Polo turning up as an Imperial Inspector
assigned to root out Chinese rebels in the south, but eventually being
won over to their cause. As such, it relies on the formula commonly
used in kung fu films to depict a much later period of conflict, that
of Qing-era Manchu conquerors vs. Ming loyalists.
The film boasts a large cast of formidable kung fu players, including, as three of the four heroes of the title, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, and, in his first film role, Kuo Chui (Philip Kwok, better known as one of the Five Venoms). The villains are portrayed by Wang Lung-Wei, Leung Kar Yan and the normally heroic Gordon Liu. These six actor-fighters are among the top names of 1970s Hong Kong kung fu cinema and any film with such a top-ranked cast involved in such a dazzling array of matches belongs at the top of any kung fu fan's must-see list. Also on hand are Billy Tang as the fourth assassin of the title and Carter Wong as an ill-fated would-be assassin.
The film's one serious structural flaw is that it introduces the villains first and follows them around as they are assigned to accompany Polo on his travels and tour of inspection. The four heroes make comparatively little impact because we don't meet them until nearly half-way into the film and then have to wait during their period of training (at mundane tasks designed to mask their outlawed kung fu practice) before the spectacular final series of matches with the villains. Action director Lau Kar Leung ended his association with director Chang Cheh during the shooting of FOUR ASSASSINS (in Taiwan) and thereafter struck out on his own as a director.
Marco Polo is played by American actor Richard Harrison, who starred in many Italian films in the 1960s, including spaghetti westerns and sword 'n' sandal adventures (GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS, GLADIATORS SEVEN). He doesn't participate in any of the fighting here but simply gets to hang around the margins of the action and, ultimately, give advice to the heroes on how best to beat their opponents. Harrison appeared the following year in another historical kung fu film, BOXER REBELLION (1976, aka BLOODY AVENGERS), as a German officer in Peking who is confronted by three of this film's stars. I've also reviewed that film on IMDb and I recommend it highly.
ADDENDUM (6/14/11): In October 2005, I acquired the Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD of this film, under its original title, MARCO POLO, which is both letter-boxed and in Mandarin with English subtitles, two things I couldn't say about the TV broadcast I originally watched for this review. Well, I've finally watched the DVD. The "one serious structural flaw" I cited above (almost ten years ago!) didn't bother me this time. The late introduction of the heroes seemed to make sense now. Also, I feel terribly remiss for not having cited in my review the female lead, Shih Szu. I may not have been very familiar with her when I first watched this. I've since watched her in many films and reviewed several of them here (e.g. LADY HERMIT, THE RESCUE). She was quite an active action heroine in the early '70s. She doesn't have any fight scenes in this film, though, but she gives quite a stirring performance as the widow of a slain rebel and has some touching scenes with Harrison. I'm also impressed with the sympathetic way that Harrison's character, Marco Polo, is handled, He's actually working for the bad guys, the "Tartars," throughout, yet in spite of that, he shows respect for the rebels and they return it. Harrison's dialogue is dubbed in Mandarin.
This is one of the more exciting Kung Fu movies. There is plenty of surreal (obviously unbelievable) action, and good directing. It takes a few twists, including the changing over of point of view in the process of the movie. This means we begin with one character, token Western character Marco Polo, and then later shifting to the viewpoints of four rebels against Khan. As in most Kung Fu movies, the fighting is comically surreal, but in this case the four assassins are obviously personifications of different types of a suppressed people. They achieve their pugilistic ability by being coached into hard work which makes them stronger. This said, the characters exhibit great charisma, and the viewer feels with them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
MARCO POLO gets off to a good start (as one might well expect, this being a Chang Cheh epic), with several martial arts bouts conducted for the amusement of the Italian explorer. Among the fighters is Gordon Liu, wielding a pair of swords. What's unusual about this is that Liu is playing one of the bad guys. The festivities are interrupted by a pair of "assassins" who include Carter Wong. The interruption proves short-lived, as Harrison as Polo leads the government goons after Wong and family. Wong and his young brother are killed. Enter our heroes, led by Alexander Fu Sheng and a baby-faced Kuo Chui (who's "introduced" in this film). Our four heroes (referred to throughout as "assassins") are sent off to train separately (Kuo Chui, as the new kid, gets the short end of the stick: he trains in a pit of feces). (For some reason, some of the fighters are referred to as "pugilists," although none of them practice traditional pugilism.) The direction is top-notch and the action brilliant throughout. Another ten.
During the Mongol reign of China in the 13th century, six sworn
brothers of the oppressed Ming loyalists plan a rebellion against the
tyranny. When two of them are brutally killed in their daring attempt
to assassinate the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, the remaining four
fighters band together to take revenge. But they do not have the upper
hand since the Emperor is surrounded by three of his best fighters:
Daidalu (played by Liang Chia-jen or popularly known as "Beardy"), who
possesses the Fiery Palm technique that instantly kills any opponent
who sustains his swift blow, a double-sword wielding fighter who kills
by dismembering his opponent's armpits named Abulabha (Gordon Liu) and
the arm-locking and waist-breaking wrestler Duilitan (Johnny Wang Lung
Before the four rebels can execute their plan to defeat their much-skilled rivals, they decide to undergo arduous training in special kungfu techniques: Fu Sheng with the Iron Palm technique - which makes him able to release fatal blows through his inner strength, Kuo Chui with the Leaping Kick technique - which makes him able to somersault in the air and land mortal kicks, Yen-tsan Tang with the Super Strength technique - which makes him able to release extraordinary strength to defeat his opponents, and Chi Kuan-chin with the Bamboo Twisting technique - which makes him invulnerable to sword attacks and arrow shots but for one weak spot. Since the Mongols have banned all sorts of kungfu training throughout the country, the four rebels have no other option but to practice secretively under their teacher's guidance only in the small hours for months.
Marco Polo, who has been assigned as a viceroy by the Mongol emperor with a priority to thwart these Chinese rebels, eventually sides with the rebellion. When the three Mongol fighters and their troops, with Polo's lead, have located and surrounded the rebels' hideout, they realize that they are facing a fearful four-men army who is prepared for anything that comes their way. The inevitable one-on-one blood for blood duel ensues, culminating in a life-and-death showdown that would decide the fate of the four heroes and their force of rebellion.
This is not a biopic of the famous Italian explorer. This is a 1975 Shaw Brothers mega-production that incorporates few facts but a lot of fiction into an exciting kungfu extravaganza, which was meant to attract wider international audience by casting American actor Richard Harrison as the title character. Those expecting to see a film on Marco Polo that is historically accurate will be sorely disappointed.
The title itself, in my opinion, is rather misleading as the film does not portray the life of Marco Polo himself. A more appropriate title should be: THE FOUR ASSASSINS, which is actually the alternate title, MARCO POLO AND THE FOUR ASSASSINS, or MARCO POLO AND THE FOUR REBELS.
Despite that, if you are familiar with a Shaw Brothers film, you will see exciting kungfu training and fighting of the four characters. Unlike the weak fight sequences in HEROES TWO (1974), those seen here are surprisingly well-choreographed, which elevate the tension during the climactic fights.
All in all, THE FOUR ASSASSINS comes recommended for those who enjoy watching solid kungfu flicks of the 70's - Shaw Brothers style!
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