Return Of Shanghai Joe

Director: Bitto Albertini  
Klaus Kinski, Cheen Lie, Tommy Polgar

It goes without saying that I really love movies. There are many kinds of movies that I enjoy, from action movies from PM Entertainment to art house dramas (the latter I enjoy as long as they manage all the same to be real movies.) However, there are certain movies that I like more than usual, and those movies are those that show a love of making movies. I usually get this feeling from the director, but it can also show with the actors or the screenwriters. It always gives me a thrill to find such a movie, and I imagine that behind the scenes of these movies, the participants were struggling to make the wonderful movie in question because they were so passionate about the project. However, I am not blind to some aspects of the motion picture industry. I do realize that even with these labors of love, while some of the participants may have signed on because they were passionate about the projects, there was almost certainly another reason why these movies were made. And that reason is that certain individuals connected with the making of these movies felt that the movies had a chance of making a profit for the investors. Oh, I don't doubt there are some movies that are one hundred percent a labor of love for the filmmakers. In the past, major Hollywood studios would occasionally make a movie that they knew wouldn't make money on its initial theatrical release, movies like The Wizard Of Oz and Paths Of Glory. But today, the movies being made that are complete labors of love are those made by real independent filmmakers, filmmakers who pick up a digital camera and shoot something in their back yard.

When you think about it, it's understandable why most movies made have people attached to them who are hoping to get a substantial return on the money that has been invested. Naturally, everyone loves money and hopes to make a lot of it. But a financial windfall can also mean that you stay employed and are able to make more movies. Anyway, with so many movies being made with the hope of making money, it should come as no surprise that many movie producers have done many things to assure box office success. Sometimes they have cast people in movies that are famous for something other than acting, like Elvis Presley or Britney Spears, to attract fans of these individuals. Sometimes they attach gimmicks to their movies like 3-D or Sensurround. But one popular method of attracting an audience is to do the same thing all over again. After all, if it worked the first time, logic says that doing it again will work. This comes in two different ways. The first way is with remakes, and the second method - the one I want to discuss - is with sequels. I think I don't have to tell you that when it comes to movie sequels, for the most part they don't match up to the original movie. Financially, maybe, but as for quality, they are almost always inferior. There are many reasons for this - different directors and different writers often being the case. But I think one of the biggest reasons is that a sequel often feels contrived, getting the same characters into a similar situation all over again. Another reason is probably that because producers think they have an instant audience for their upcoming sequel, they simply don't try as hard as they did with the original movie. Why put in the effort if you are going to make money anyway?

If you look at the index pages of this web site, you will see that I haven't reviewed that many sequels. There are several reasons for that. The first is that with many sequels, they are part of a popular and well-known series, so it wouldn't feel right to review such movies for a web site thatThe Return Of Shanghai Joe is called, "The Unknown Movies". The second reason is one that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, that most movie sequels are not that good at all. I would rather take a chance on a non-sequel than a sequel, because there's more of a chance of freshness and originality. But recently I came across a sequel that I couldn't resist taking a look at, Return Of Shanghai Joe. Years ago I reviewed its predecessor, The Fighting Fists Of Shanghai Joe, a spaghetti western with a kung fu twist. Being really into spaghetti westerns, I really enjoyed it despite finding some major faults with it. The prospect of more kung fu fun on the spaghetti desert plains was something I couldn't pass up. Once again we are in The Wild West, with the action taking place in and around a small town that is ruled by an iron fist by one Pat Barnes (Klaus Kinski, playing a different role than he did in the first Shanghai Joe movie). One day there is a new arrival to the town, a bumbling traveling salesman by the name of Bill Cannon (Polgar, My Name Is Nobody). He is hired by the local peasants to look for water, but during his search he accidentally stumbles upon oil. As you can imagine, when Barnes hears of this discovery he is very interested, and starts scheming to remove the peasants who live on top of this oil field so he can reap all the future profits coming from it. At the same time, he and his trusted men are looking for Pedro, a man who has witnessed a lot of Barnes' illegal schemes and threatens to tell the judge who is coming to town all about what Barnes has done. Pedro is secretly hiding out with Cannon, which of course threatens Cannon's life. It seems hopeless for the peasants, Pedro, and Cannon. But who should come into town at this time but Shanghai Joe...

Before I watched Return Of Shanghai Joe, I first took another look at The Fighting Fists Of Shanghai Joe to not only see if this first movie still held up, but also so I could more easily compare the two movies. Well, the first movie was still as I remembered it, sloppy but a lot of fun. As for the sequel, it turned out to be inferior to the original movie in just about every way you can think of. I'll start off by taking a look at the prime element (well, at least what should have been the prime element - more on that later) of the movie, Shanghai Joe. In this sequel, actor Chen Lee is replaced by another actor, imaginatively listed as "Cheen Lie" in the credits. I was not immediately against the idea of replacing the title character with another actor, though I have to admit that this new actor didn't stand up to the original actor. He is clearly trying at times, especially in the fight sequences, but for the most part he comes across as a blander and less colorful individual. One reason for this is that the script for much of the time doesn't give him that much to say. He hardly says a word in the first thirty minutes of the movie, and without getting the chance to say a lot it's kind of difficult to get a grasp on his character. When the movie does subsequently give this character more to say, his dialogue for the most part doesn't give us a good idea of what his character is thinking or feeling. Such facts may not matter to some die hard action fans, who will just be interested in seeing this character kick some major butt. However, while this new actor does put some energy into his fight sequences, he can't escape the fact that he doesn't seem as skilled in the martial arts as his predecessor. Watching this newbie kicking and punching, I kept thinking while watching him in action, "I could do that." More likely than not you'll be thinking the same thing, and feel as equally underwhelmed by the action.

There is a bigger problem with the character of Shanghai Joe this time around, more pressing than his bland and unexciting presentation in his scenes. After seeing the first movie, you might expect that Shanghai Joe in this sequel would be just as up front and center. Bur surprisingly this is not the case. Believe it or not, there are large chunks of the movie where Shanghai Joe is nowhere to be found, enough that this individual pretty much becomes a supporting character instead of the main character. Instead of having there be prime focus on Shanghai Joe, the movie spends a lot of its time on other characters in the story. If these characters were well constructed and interesting, the lack of focus on Shanghai Joe might have been forgiven, but none of the other characters are particularly colorful. That includes the movie's villain, played by the great Klaus Kinski. Now, when Kinski is added to a movie's cast, he instantly brings in some positive attributes. He looks as creepy here as he does in his other movies, and he occasionally flashes a wicked grin that's effective. But more often than not he seems to be going through the motions, treating this acting job as an excuse for a paycheck rather than a personal challenge. Indeed, his somewhat limited scenes look like they were quickly filmed one after another. As for Tommy Polgar, some past reviewers of this movie have branded him as a Bud Spencer clone. Indeed, he is dubbed by a voice actor who at times sounds remarkably like the one who has dubbed numerous Spencer movies. His character also seems remarkably resistant to physical injury. But he is sorely missing Spencer's charisma. Spencer had presence without saying a word, while Polgar has to constantly act goofy in a desperate attempt to generate laughs.

Indeed, much of Return Of Shanghai Joe is treated in a much more light hearted fashion than the first film. On one hand that is welcome, since the sequel contains much fewer racist elements than the first movie. Some family audiences might also welcome the fact that the movie is much less violent than the first movie; until the last ten minutes of the movie, there is a body count consisting of just two corpses. On the other hand, the fight sequences lack the original movie's energy and glorious bloodsheding and broken bones. As well, the various attempts at humor all fall completely flat, whether it's the annoying De Angelis brothers-like theme song (which is resurrected three additional times during the course of the movie), or various bumbling actions by the character played by Polgar. Though the screenplay has a number of other problems beside the weakly constructed characters and the various lame attempts at humor. The main fault is that there isn't a terrible amount of plot to be found here apart from what I described three paragraphs ago. Another script problem is that there are some subplots that are brought up and then simply forgotten about, such as the whole business with the ambition of the character of Pat Barnes to take over the peasants' oil field. There are also some changes in character motivations that make no sense, like how Polgar's character starts off being a completely only-for-himself type of person to suddenly offering his help to the character of Shanghai Joe despite all the danger that has come up. The stupidest plot turn in the script comes in the final few minutes of the movie, when we finally learn why Shanghai Joe has been sticking his nose in business that you would think shouldn't have been his in the first place. This final bit of stupidity is the icing on the cake, a cake cooked up by the worst kind of cinematic chefs, those who would make a product they clearly would not sample on their own but would all the same try to sell it to an unsuspecting public.

(Posted July 29, 2015)

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See also: The Fighting Fists Of Shanghai Joe, Mafia Vs. Ninja, Navajo Joe