MAGIC CRANE (1993)
OF THE DRAGON (1981)
Ground Zero Entertainment has a couple different brands of martial arts classics including The Wu Tang Clan series and the Black Belt Theater collection. Recently they have added another brand to their line-up, dubbed The Brooklyn Zu Collection. The idea behind these double feature DVDs is to showcase a particular style of martial arts that is based upon animal or insect forms. For instance, previous entries in this series include TIGER OVER WALL, GOOSE BOXER, LADY IRON MONKEY, 7 STAR GRAND MANTIS, etc. (you get the idea). But as far as Ground Zero is concerned, the movies donít really have to showcase the origins or authenticity of a particular style; all a movie has to do to qualify for the Brooklyn Zu Collection is have an animal name in the title. Case in point, Ground Zeroís recent pairing of two odd couple companion pieces, Tsui Harkís 1993 Wuxia tale, THE MAGIC CRANE and Joseph Laiís 1981 failure, RIVALS OF THE DRAGON. You wonít find any Crane style in THE MAGIC CRANE, and there arenít any real dragons (or even Brucploitation) in the setting of RIVALS OF THE DRAGON. For those who may not be familiar with these films, THE MAGIC CRANE is a cable-fu extravaganza from Tsui Hark. Itís one of the many Wuxia films he created during the early 1990ís like GREEN SNAKE (1993), IRON MONKEY (1993), and the SWORDSMAN trilogy. Josephís Laiís RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is completely different from the polished THE MAGIC CRANE in every way. Lai is one of the preeminent schlock producers in the Hong Kong film industry, right up there with Godfrey Ho. He directed a series of Ninja movies like NINJA HUNT (1986), NINJA KILL (1987), and COBRA VS NINJA (1987). This zero-budgeted Hong Kong/U.S. co-production RIVALS OF THE DRAGON was his directorial debut, and the only movie he directed without a Ninja theme in it.
The plot of THE MAGIC CRANE is fairly complex and words wonít really do it justice, but here goes: Martial arts schools from across ancient China combine to form a large congregation. The two most ambitious and ruthless Kung Fu masters of the group, Pang Hoi (Lawrence Ng) and General Tsao Hung (Kelvin Wong), possess super powers and battle each other for leadership of the clan. Simultaneously, two equally powerful female priestesses Pak Wan Fei (Anita Mui) and Butterfly Lam (Rosamund Kwan) clash with one another using weapons that resemble musical instruments (shades of DEADFUL MELODY). Walking blindly into this maelstrom, are noble sifu Yat Yeng Tze (Damian Lau) and bumbling student Ma Kwon Mo (Tony Leung). These two humans get caught in the cycle of deception, betrayal, and death around them, as they try to right the wrongs and reunite the World of Martial Arts, which totters on the brink of destruction.
Even though the plot is difficult to make sense of, THE MAGIC CRANE is not the type of movie to try and analyze. Itís a typical Tsui Hark Wuxia-fest made during the height of his creative streak. You put your brain in neutral, and let Hark and director Benny Chan take you for a wild and wondrous ride through the myths of historic China. In addition to the usual flying people, sorcerous hijinx, and bloody mouths, you will witness sights not seen before in Hong Kong cinema. A flying Crane ascends from the heavens to give flight to one of the heroines. The protagonists battle an immense tortoise to use itís magical organs for wizardry. An army of killer bats terrorizes the people of this ancient world. THE MAGIC CRANE is a film that relies on special effects for itís unique visuals, and those viewers spoiled by the high-tech razzle dazzle of modern Hollywood Blockbusters will find fault with the analog effects here. But these dated effects certainly possess more charm than todayís cold CGIókind of like Japanís suitmation techniques (for kaiju movies) or Ray Harryhausenís stop-motion animation. The actual martial arts sequences in the movie are few, with the emphasis on actors and actresses in cable harnesses zooming through the heavens. Instead of delivering punches and kicks, the characters fight by hurtling objects at one another. THE MAGIC CRANE is after all, an epic fantasy and not the movie to see for authentic martial arts action.
RIVALS OF THE DRAGON takes place in contemporary times, and the locale is Los Angeles, CA of all places. The elder Dr. Chen works as an alternative practitioner using acupuncture and ancient herbal techniques to help out his patients. Dr. Chen is also the trainer for two Kung Fu students, brothers named Ah Cheung and Ah Wong (Tak Yuen). Ah Cheung gets mixed up in local gangland activity and steals a map from the criminals, prompting the crooked gang leader to have him killed. As Dr. Chen tries to comfort the grieving brother Ah Wong, the gang turns their attention to Dr. Chen whom they believe has possession of the map. They kidnap him and take him to the a field to interrogate and intimidate him, while other gang members attempt to capture Ah Wong back at Dr. Chenís school. Ah Wong and his friends from the school out-fight the bad guys, but agree to return with them to learn where their master is being held. By the time the gangsters return with their reluctant captives, they discover that Dr. Chen has single-handedly taken out his captors!
Itís really impossible to put into words how horrible this movie truly is. One major drawback to RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is that it is one of a bunch of older martial arts films to take place in contemporary times (the 1970s or 1980s) like DUEL OF THE BRAVE ONES, DEATH RING, or THE AMSTERDAM CONNECTION, and unlike the period films of the 1970s and 1980s, these dated efforts do not age well. The cast is clad in Addidas Sportswear and Members-Only jackets. Joseph Lai stages the action in sleazy side of Los Angela, California where hookers and pimps can be seen everywhere. Being a low-budget production shot on location, there are a lot of Caucasians in the cast. RIVALS OF THE DRAGON feels like a patchwork production with the narrative going in several different directions. In addition to the main plot, there is a subplot about a sadistic fight promoter and his brutal Tai Kwan Do fighter who pay non-fighters to get in the ring with him so he can beat them to a pulp. You barely notice the plot inconsistencies though because the inept direction of Joseph Lai will have you fast forwarding to get to the good stuff. There are a few good fights in the end, and the contemporary approach does allow for a few creative wrinkles, such as using golf clubs in the fight choreography (which is overcranked in a few scenes). The action choreographers Wallace Tsui and Joseph Lam weave some gunplay into the climatic moments. Except for protagonist Tak Yuen, there are no other big name stars in the movie. Yuen toiled in the independent martial arts scene for years appearing in such varied martial arts flicks as THE MASTER (1980), MY TOUNG AUNTIE (1981), AMBITIOUS KUNG FU GIRL (1981), and THE ROVING SWORDSMAN (1983). Like many former old-school stars, he finally achieved a measure of success as an action choreographer in such Hong Kong New Wave efforts as DRAGON FROM RUSSIA (1990), OPERATION SCORPIO (1991), and HIGH RISK (1995).
THE MAGIC CRANE is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer. The image quality is essentially the same as any cheap HK import you might get from Universe or Mei Ah. Things are a little dark in the image, but otherwise a decent transfer for a budget disk. The one major flaw in the presentation is the framing of the sub-titles. They go off the screen constantly and your mind is forced to fill in the blanks because you canít read all the translations. This is very distracting, but the strength of THE MAGIC CRANE is in the visuals and not the plotting. So while THE MAGIC CRANE is pretty good, RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is a horrible, full frame transfer that brings to mind the quality of a bad PanMedia disc. RIVALS OF THE DRAGON has a cheap sleazy look to it anyhow, and this murky, grainy presentation really adds to the sleaze factor of Los Angeles. One of the worst transfers yet to emerge from Ground Zero.
The audio for both THE MAGIC CRANE and RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is Dolby Digital Mono 2.0. THE MAGIC CRANE is the typical decent Ground Zero mono mix, lacking any stereo sound. This is pretty much equal to the HK import version of this film, which also lacked a stereo sound mix. THE MAGIC CRANE features some bizarre sound effects to match the otherworldly visuals. The original Cantonese dialog is rendered without distortion or audio anomalies. There is also some Canton-Pop in the form of lounge music performed by Jacky Cheung. The sound for RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is equally atrocious as the dismal video transfer. The soundtrack for this film is very low, and you must turn up the volume to hear the dialog. This results in a thick layer of background noise and distortion. The score is terrible except for when Joseph Lai incorporates music from Sergio Leoneís THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. The best thing I can say about the audio portion of RIVALS OF THE DRAGON is that the dubbing is professionally done by the same people who did the Shaw Brothers movies. A very lazy audio mix from Ground Zero.
Though I love the idea of Double Feature discs, this particular pairing is a weak offering for fans of classic martial arts movies. THE MAGIC CRANE is an enjoyable action fantasy with strong performances. For eye-candy I highly recommend it, but purists may be put off by the overall lack of Kung Fu. RIVALS OF THE DRAGON just plain sucks and the transfer is one of the worst Iíve seen from Ground Zero. If you like THE MAGIC CRANE, you canít go wrong with purchasing this budget priced version over the higher priced import (assuming itís still in print). If you donít like Wire-Fu or HK fantasies, stay away from this Brooklyn Zu disc.
-- Tony Mustafa