"Return of the Valuables" Chinese Theatrical Poster
Director: Chui Dai-Gwan
Writer: Gam Kim
Producer: Chen Ching-Te
Cast: Chen Tao, Joan Lin Feng-Chiao, Gary List, Lee Seung, Lam Chi, Miao Tian, Lan Yun, Gam Kim, Chen Chiu, Chan San-Yat, Tsang Ming-Cheong, Yeung Hung, Keung Hon, Wong Goon-Hung, Chui Lap, Cho Kin, Siu Wong-Lung, Lui Wan-Biu
Running Time: 82 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Toby Russell should be a name that anyone who counts themselves as a fan of kung fu movies will be familiar with. The son of director Ken Russell, he’s a guy who spent his formative years hanging out on the sets of seemingly every legendary kung fu movie ever made, and acting and directing a fair few of them as well. Back in the 1990’s he assisted to run the Eastern Heroes video label in the UK with Ricky Baker, and then in the 2000’s he was the man behind both the Vengeance Video and the Rarescope labels, which released a wealth of old school kung fu goodness onto DVD, often for the first time.
However by 2010, like every other label out there that specialized in the kung fu genre, releases from Vengeance Video and Rarescope had completely dried up. Thankfully though, it appears Russell still has a wealth of movies in his vaults that never got an official release, and towards the end of 2014 he began releasing them as custom projects, usually focusing on movies which have never had English subtitles before. Return of the Valuables is the tenth title that Russell has put out there in his most recent venture, and is a rare 1975 Taiwanese modern day action movie.
Rare kung fu movies usually fall into 2 categories – the first is that for whatever reason, be it distribution rights or lost to the ravages of time, the movies have never had a release either on VHS or DVD, so remain frustratingly impossible to see outside of bootlegs and collectors circles. The second is much simpler – they’ve become rare because they suck and have zero entertainment value, however develop a reputation for being worth watching just based on the fact that the title is so difficult to track down. Sometimes it’s a fine line, so I was curious to see what the deal was with Return of the Valuables.
Working from a newly English subtitled version of the German print, one of the few countries it was released in widescreen, the movie opens with a group of stunt motorcyclists riding around a racetrack. I had my suspicions that such a scene probably wasn’t going to have any connection to the rest of the movie, and I was partly right. None of the movies characters feature in the performance, however I suppose it does serve as a connection to the surprising amount of vehicle stunts that feature throughout, often involving motorbikes, but we’ll get to that later.
The plot of Return of the Valuables revolves around a treasure box which contains a stolen tiara. The tiara is originally stolen by the fantastically named Nightclub Gang, led by King Hu favorite Miao Tian, however it’s then in turn stolen by another gang, led by Gwailo actor Gary List, here in his one and only movie appearance. Tian’s gang members insist the tiara would never have been stolen, had it not been for the fact that the brakes on their car didn’t work, and it just so happens that the brother of the car mechanic who recently worked on the car is a morally righteous kung fu expert. Solution to getting the tiara back? Kidnap the car mechanic and blame him for the brakes not working, then blackmail the brother to helping them take on the rival gang. That works for me.
The car mechanic is played by Gam Kim, who also wrote the script, as well as directing movies like Six Kung Fu Heroes and Militant Eagle, while his kung fu fighting brother is played by Chen Tao. Tao of course quickly becomes the main character, and has a satisfying amount of screen presence and fighting talent, so I was surprised to discover that, apart from an appearance in The Iron Profligates the year prior, he doesn’t have any other movies to his name.
Special mention also has to go to the funky soundtrack, which really adds to the 70’s vibe. I’m sure almost all of the music came from somewhere else, as I was able to recognize a few riffs from Lalo Schifrin’s Enter the Dragon score. The box housing the tiara also gets its own entertainingly bombastic score whenever it gets opened, no matter how inappropriate. Gangsters are sitting around a table seriously discussing the tiara – box gets opened, bombastic score suddenly plays out of nowhere, box gets closed, bombastic score abruptly stops and gangsters continue talking.
Adding to my ‘theory in progress’ that every movie made in 1975 had to have a sexy dance scene (see reviews for The Association and The Saviour Monk), Return of the Valuables also doesn’t disappoint in this department. In a scene which is pretty much separate from everything else going on, we get to watch a well endowed dancer, adorned in just a bikini and briefs sporting psychedelic swirls, perform a rather bizarre routine in the Nightclub Gang’s, well, nightclub. To sum it up, the dance involves her prancing around with a rather manic look on her face, while wildly shaking her ample chest from side to side with great speed. It’s all shot in gratuitous close-up, and eventually the bikini comes off, which I’m sure must have resulted in her developing some kind of breast version of whiplash. I never thought I’d want a topless dance scene to stop, so this was certainly a first. Ironically, the next line a character speaks immediately after the scene is, “What kind of bullsh*t was that?” Agreed.
Of course movies like this are all about the action, and Return of the Valuables delivers plenty of it. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a surprising amount of vehicle stunt work for a 1975 production. While some of it may pale in comparison to what can be done today, scenes were a motorbike mounts the top of a truck and performs a high jump across a railway track, just seconds away from being hit by a speeding train, are nothing less than impressive. Just like Jackie Chan would use for his shopping mall pole slide 10 years later in Police Story, director Chui Dai-Gwan employs the technique of replaying the jump from a couple of different angles, which succeed in highlighting the danger of such a stunt.
Tao is a satisfying bad ass throughout. He convincingly portrays a guy who wants to do the right thing, but it also isn’t under him to hang a woman by her legs out of a window several stories up, or throw a gown over a gangsters head as he steps out of the shower and punch him in the face. Outside of these occurrences though, it’s essentially Tao’s job to get into a fight in almost every scene he’s in, and he sells the fights well. Return of the Valuables belongs to the basher category when it comes to the fight choreography, and for me bashers tend to be one of two things. They’ll either have very stilted and blocky choreography (at worse – performed slowly), or they’ll contain fights which appear like the director did something to get everyone really angry, and then said “Go at each other!” Return of the Valuables thankfully falls into the later category, with every one of the many fights coming across as highly aggressive and violent.
What the fights may lack in finesse and intricate movements, they more than make up for with raw energy and anger. There are no character deaths here from an elaborate acrobatic move or flying kick, when somebody bites the dust, it’s probably because they’ve just been enthusiastically punched in the face 20 times, and sometimes, that’s perfectly fine. The action really culminates at the 1 hour mark, and never relents for the remaining 20 minutes. Having not only had his brother kidnapped, but also his girlfriend (played by none other than Mrs. Jackie Chan – Joan Lin) as well, Tao goes on a rampage through Gary List’s Gwailo gangster’s mansion. Just to remind us that it’s the 70’s, he also has to compete with 4 color coordinated bodyguards, who have matching bald heads, red sweaters, and black fingerless gloves. It’s a look which demands respect.
The finale is really an exhausting experience, with Tao, Tian, and List, all going after each other in a combination of vehicle chases that involve cars, motorbikes, and boats. And of course, fisticuffs, lots of them. The fight action is raw and desperate, with at one point List and Tao going at each other in a river which has a current that looks close to being white water rapids. Watching them trying to throw punches at each other while trying not to be swept away, you’d have to be in a coma not to feel a rush of excitement. List may be a Gwailo, and it’s debatable if he had any formal martial arts training, but he shows that he can give and take blows, enduring all the way to the end, which has him and Tao fighting it out on a moving unmanned boat – Face/Off style, only more than 20 years earlier.
For a healthy dose of 70’s basher action, you can’t go too far wrong with Return of the Valuables.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10