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Stoner
(a.k.a. A Man Called Stoner
The Hong Kong Hitman
)

(1972)
 

Director: Huang Feng                        
Cast:
George Lazenby, Angela Mao, Sammo Hung


In recent years, George Lazenby has admitted regret about his foolish decisions surrounding the James Bond franchise. His bad decisions included acting what he though a "big star" did (fighting with the director and crew, brawling in the after hours) and refusing to make another Bond movie when offered to do so after On Her Majesty's Secret Service was completed. Word of his reputation spread, and he soon found it nearly impossible to find work, and took anything that he could find. In the early 70s, he appeared in several Hong Kong movies, the first one being Stoner. Hong Kong films being what they were during this period, it's not surprising that it has some great filmmaking flaws. But it has a number of strengths that manage to give it a marginal recommendation - surprisingly, some provided by Lazenby.

I don't consider Lazenby to be a bad actor. Not a great actor, but he's not terrible. He gives a mixed performance here from what can be judged. Since this is a Hong Kong film, he is dubbed, even though there isn't any doubt he was speaking English on the set. (The dubbing in this movie, by the way, is horrible, with absolutely no effort to match dialogue with the lip movements.) So there isn't much left of his performance that can be judged. His facial expression is generally, um, stoney. So except for his unintentionally amusing expressions when his character is at one point drugged, all that's interesting about him to look at are the hideous '70s fashions he wears and the fact that he sports a mustache in this movie (which he shaves off near the end for no apparent reason.)

That didn't concern me too much, since my interest in Hong Kong movies has little focus on the performances. And Lazenby makes up for it with all the martial art fights his character has to go through. Yes, Lazenby kicks, chops, and jumps all over the place in choreography that easily puts Lorenzo Lamas and other so-called western martial arts actors to shame. He's not as quick and agile as, say, Jackie Chan - I don't know how much Lazenby knew about martial arts before this movie, but it's clear he doesn't have as much training as the Hong Kong masters have had. Wisely, he is choreographed to put emphasis on what he can do. His kicks may not be high, but you can almost feel the bones break when he kicks someone. Also, his body language really seems to be that of someone who is fighting for their life. So though these fights may not be jam-packed full of speed and fabulous moves, they are exciting because they feel brutal and real. And it's only fair I should also mention that occasionally Lazenby does manage to do a big move that would impress the masters.

Hong Kong fans will also recognize an opponent Lazenby has to fight - Sammo Hung (Pedicab Driver, Enter The Fat Dragon), several years before he became famous (and much heavier.) The two don't just duel once, but three times, and each subsequent fight is more spectacular. Lazenby isn't the only one who goes around kicking butt in this movie. Angela Mao (Enter The Dragon, When Taekwondo Strikes) is another legendary Hong Kong star making an appearance here. Actually, she is officially supposed to be Lazenby's co-star, but compared to the amount of time Lazenby gets, her role is little more than an extended cameo. All her character does is occasionally show up, sometimes getting into a scrap. Her fights are entertaining, yes, but her character does almost nothing for the plot. Her character and Lazenby's don't really ever get together until near the end of the movie!

The two possible conclusions I came up with regarding this weak character are that (1) the version I got was possibly the one cut of 25 minutes, and may have provided more background for Angela's part, or (2) Angela is only here to make this movie more marketable to Asian audiences. Whatever the reason, almost no work was done with her here; at the end of the movie, not only was I still unsure of what government (Taiwan?) her police character was working for, I wasn't even sure of what the name of her character was. She has no charisma here, no aura of power or sexuality around her. She keeps the same basic expression on her face, save her bizarre eye-rolling when she encounters a locked door at one point. And not only does she only meet up with Lazenby near the end, no chemistry, no tension (sexual or otherwise) is generated between the actors, though a lot of that can be attributed to that they don't spend that much time together after they finally meet.

Very disappointing, and not what we expected from the setup, a premise that feels derived from the James Bond films. We have this isolated island, and we have this rich madman (Wong In Sik) on it who runs this religious complex which is really a cover for something sinister. What else, but an underground complex with many identically dressed henchmen running around? In this case, though, the villain doesn't want to conquer the world, but just flood the world with the drugs his secret factory makes. (Wait a minute - that was the setup in Licence To Kill! Did Broccoli and company decide to do some ripping off of their own in retaliation?) The drug he puts out is "The Happy Pill", an aphrodisiac for both men and women, with the bonus of making women take off their clothes, as Australian cop Stoner (Lazenby) discovers when he finds his missing sister. Tracing the origin of the drug to Hong Kong, he flies there on his quest for revenge, the same time Angela Mao's character (cop? soldier? what?) is told by her government to go to Hong Kong and investigate the drug as well.

Stoner is never boring; it is jam-packed with exciting and well choreographed fights, and it has a dash of nudity and sexual sleaze that is also welcome. The production values are generally above average for the period, with varied locations and superior sets. There are also some moments that weren't intended to be amusing, but end up giving the viewer some nice chuckles here and there. There is the very familiar "hahahahahahaha!" laugh that's found in countless other badly dubbed martial arts films, and inane lines of dialogue like, "The Orient is still a most mysterious place!" And though it's not really right to laugh at a normal aspect of a foreign culture, sights like a priest raising his middle finger prominently during a ceremony are admittedly hard to watch with a straight face.

Still, it could have been better. In fact, if there weren't as many cool fights as there are here, the movie probably would have received a negative review. Besides the problems with the characters discussed earlier, there are other such annoying things like a Dragnet musical score which is funny the first few times it blares, but after hearing the same triumphant notes a few dozen times... The main problem is that frequently the movie is either too abrupt or lacking in detail. Scenes begin or end so suddenly and/or without any explanation as to what happened afterwards (or before), that it won't be long until viewers are seriously confused. Again, I don't know if this was the cut version I viewed, but the lack of key details gave me a headache. Maybe the editor though no one would care about this, but even the biggest action fans know that even a lot of action can become boring without properly setting them up first. Stoner is still worth seeing, but only when you are in a no-brainer mood, which will prevent you from having to reach for the aspirin.

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See also: Evel Knievel, Robotrix, The Stranger

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