Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jackie Outdoes Himself in “Armour of God II: Operation Condor”

Jackie (Jackie Chan), also known as Condor, is a man who, in the style of Indiana Jones, secures (and occasionally steals) rare artifacts. When a Baron is commissioned by the UN to recover 240 tons of gold, purloined and hidden by the Germans during World War II, he sends Jackie to locate the sequestered fortune. Ada (Carol “Do Do” Cheng) of the UN and Elsa (Eva Cobo de Garcia), a descendant of the German officer ordered to hide the gold, accompany Jackie. Trekking through the deserts of Africa, Jackie and the team search for an underground base, with Momoko (Shoko Ikeda) joining them along the way. In the course of their journey, they must battle hapless treasure hunters, as well as mercenary soldiers working for a mysterious man in a wheelchair (Aldo Sambrell).

Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991/Fei ying gai wak), which Chan also co-wrote and directed, is a sequel to Chan’s 1987 film, Armour of God (Long xiong hu di), but it sometimes gives the impression of a remake. Chan is playing the same character, though he is called Asian Hawk in Armour of God and referred to as Condor in the second film. Both movies have similar openings, with Jackie stealing from an African tribe and narrowly escaping (a small plane in the original, a giant inflatable sphere in the sequel). In the first film, Jackie needs to trade the Armour of God for the safe return of his ex-girlfriend, Laura (Rosamund Kwan). There are five pieces, and he borrows three of them from a Count, played by the same actor who plays the Baron in Operation Condor, although they are evidently two different characters. In Armour of God, the Count sends his daughter, May (Lola Forner), along with Jackie, much like Ada being assigned to the mission in the sequel. Both films have elaborate car chases before the seeking of the treasure begins.

The differences in Operation Condor, however, are marked improvements. One of the most notable distinctions is the treatment of women. In many of Jackie Chan’s early films, female characters are rarely seen or insignificant. In Armour of God, May boasts of winning a marksman championship, but not only does she miss an opportunity to fully display her skill, Jackie also mocks her champion status, suggesting that only two people competed. Laura is little more than the woman to be rescued, and she even proves a deterrent when she is freed only after being brainwashed by her captors. In contrast, Ada, Elsa and Momoko are strong supporting characters, even superior to Jackie’s male companion in Armour of God, Alan (Alan Tam). Ada is intelligent and knowledgeable of deserts, Elsa’s familial background is an asset, and Momoko is helpful by having befriended the locals in Africa.

Jackie’s relationship with the women is one of the film’s most rewarding components. He acts as a protector, but without a sexual tie to any of the women, there is no machoism to his constant safeguarding. In fact, his protection comes across as paternal. In one sequence (which was excised from the U.S. version), the group is being led across the desert by armed men. When they are refused water, Jackie crawls to each lady (having all collapsed from the heat) and allows them access to a hidden water pack in his jacket with a thin tube. He tries to hide it from the other men, giving the appearance of Jackie embracing each woman. The men initially attribute their actions to lust, but the scene is in actuality more akin to a mother feeding her children. Later in the film, during a monumental fight scene, the ladies are being chased by one of the soldiers, and they call for Jackie, who is occupied with three villains. Ada, Elsa and Momoko persevere and subsequently knock unconscious one of Jackie’s opponents. Jackie smiles at the three women, like a proud parent. Additional instances include Jackie leading the women away during chases and, at one point, helping keep Ada covered when she’s draped in only a towel and held at gunpoint.

Regarding the female characters as Jackie’s “children” is not meant to undermine them as women. It’s well established that none of them have experience in combat, and it’s therefore refreshing that they don’t spend the film shrieking and cowering in fear. Their sheer determination is strength enough, as, for instance, Ada and Elsa do not even entertain the idea of giving up a key when being pursued by armed soldiers. The most significant element to the ladies’ fight with the aforementioned soldier is that, after knocking down the three women (viewers only witness the outcome), the man is apparently shocked to see Ada, Elsa and Momoko stand up again. What holds more weight than their unified force is their tenacity, as they are unwilling to stay down. A standout moment is another soldier, having been struck by all three women, slapping each lady. He is visibly surprised when Momoko returns to him an expression of defiance. In the very basic sense, the soldiers desire control, but the women never yield.

In a country where most films are made quickly, Jackie Chan has long been notorious as a perfectionist, meticulously working on his movies until he is satisfied. (The studio typically doesn’t complain, as the box office returns are exceptionally profitable.) Nevertheless, the well known wind tunnel sequence near the end of Armour of God II required a lengthy shoot even by Chan’s standards. Though it runs at a little more than 10 minutes, the scene took an astounding four months to complete. Production was plagued with many problems, the most interesting of which was the filmmakers accused of counterfeiting, after some of the film’s artificial currency (stamped with Golden Harvest, the studio) made it off the set. Armour of God II cost an estimated 115 million Hong Kong dollars (roughly 15 million U.S.) to make, which at the time was the most expensive film produced in Hong Kong.

Armour of God II received American theatrical release in the summer of 1997, after Chan’s films were playing to great success on U.S. screens. It was titled simply Operation Condor and was dubbed, re-scored, and missing approximately 15 minutes of footage, most of it at the beginning and resulting in some of the narrative making little sense (including an early introduction to both Elsa and Momoko, so that the recut version makes it look as if Momoko is a random hitchhiker that the team picks up in the desert). The first Armour of God has memorial sequences but is probably best remembered as the film that nearly killed its star: a routine jump resulted in Chan falling and receiving a serious head injury. This explains a continuity error, in which Chan’s character inexplicably has longer hair because, as Chan has stated, he needed to cover the hole in his head. Following the U.S. theatrical distribution of Operation Condor, Armour of God was released on VHS and DVD, recut and confusingly retitled Operation Condor II: The Armor of the Gods.

At the time of Armour of God II, Carol Cheng was one of the more prolific actresses working, but by the mid-90s, her cinematic output waned. In 2000, she starred in the popular Hong Kong sitcom, War of the Genders, on the network, TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited). She won a TVB Anniversary Award (similar to an Emmy) for her role in the series and was awarded again in 2005 as host of the game show, Justice for All. Cheng was also the host of Hong Kong’s version of The Weakest Link, and she co-hosted the TVB Anniversary Awards ceremony in 2010.

This is one of many of Chan’s films to feature Ken Lo, the actor’s former bodyguard and member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team (reportedly the professional relationship between the two ended badly). Lo is the redheaded villain in the wind tunnel with Chan in Armour of God II. The actor and martial artist is prominently featured in much of Chan’s filmography, including the immensely popular final fight sequence in Drunken Master II (1994/released in the U.S. in 2000 as The Legend of Drunken Master), one of the villains in Police Story III: Supercop (1992), and even a notable character in Chan’s first hit of his U.S.-made films, 1998’s Rush Hour (he’s the one who proudly admits to kicking Chris Tucker in the face). Lo has also starred with Jet Li in Corey Yuen’s My Father is a Hero (1995/in the U.S. as The Enforcer) and in the Japanese film, Dead or Alive: Final (2002), helmed by cult director Takashi Miike.

The superiority of Armour of God II: Operation Condor over Armour of God is not an anomaly in Chan’s oeuvre. One of the actor/director’s most popular films is a sequel: Drunken Master II. Additionally, some fans tend to prefer Police Story III: Supercop over Chan’s international breakthrough hit, Police Story (1985) -- likely due to the pairing of Chan and Michelle Yeoh -- and others may argue that Project A (1983) is surpassed by 1987’s Project A II (favoring that sequel is debatable, but I’m of the opinion that Chan topped his ‘83 classic). Even his U.S. film, Rush Hour 2 (2001), was more comparable to his Hong Kong movies than the original.

Jackie Chan has named silent film star Buster Keaton as a strong influence in his work. Certainly his choreographed stunts are reminiscent of Keaton’s movies, and Chan has stated that the wind tunnel scene in Armour of God II was inspired by the cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), especially the moments when Keaton tries walking against the heavy winds. But Chan, like Keaton, did not make films comprised solely of stunt work. His movies are filled with lively characters and comedy that’s delivered in forms other than action -- in Armour of God II, for instance, while in the German base, a missile’s warhead falls from a crate and slowly rolls across the floor, as every person freezes, cringes as it clangs against the wall, and sighs with relief before the fighting resumes. Chan is well known for his stunts, but he is also a gifted actor and an accomplished comedian, and he entertains on a multitude of levels.


  1. Sark, I can't imagine a "kung fu month" at the Cafe without a Jackie Chan film review--so your wonderful OPERATION CONDOR write-up is most appropriate. This is one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies; the wind tunnel sequence is amazing (and it's also amazing to learn that it took four months to film). I never thought of Jackie's relationships with the female characters as paternal. The next time I watch CONDOR, I will need to look for that and see if I agree! Although I first heard of Jackie when he made THE BIG BRAWL in the 1980s, I was umfamiliar with his more highly regarded films like ARMOUR OF GOD until I saw him on a segment of a British TV series called THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW. It includes lots of awesome clips from the movies you mentioned, with superb commentary by Jackie. Watching the footage of his ARMOUR OF GOD accident, with him describing it in detail, was chilling. It's a wonder that he didn't die or suffer permanent brain damage. It is intriguing that most of his sequels are better than the originals (I agree wholeheartedly with you). As always, this was an insightful review and packed with fascinating bakground details (especially the part about the Golden Harvest "counterfeit" money). Thanks for another terrific job.

  2. Great review, I loved Jackie when I was kid, and I am still willing to watch anything from him when they play it on tv
    Great blog you have here, if you have few moments I would like you to chek out my new blog
    thanks and keep the good work

  3. Sark, I am a Jackie Chan fan! It has been quite some time since I have seen this so I went to You Tube and rewatched the wind tunnel scene. It was really well done! I always enjoy your research and the fun details you share with us. I had no idea that Hong Kong had a "Weakest Link" TV show, too, much less that Carol Cheng hosted it. Like the wind tunnel, you blew me away again! Great work!

  4. This has to be one of my favorites of your kung fu reviews this month! You really get into the depth and motivation of the characters, describe the action in a very descriptive way, and give a lot of really interesting background and facts about shooting. I loved the accidental counterfeit coin problem -- too funny! It does fascinate me that Chan took inspiration from Buster Keaton, and also that, unlike most movies, his sequels tend to be better.

    Thanks for the heads-up of the wind tunnel scene, Toto. I'm headed over to YouTube to find it. Sark, great review -- one of the best!

  5. Darn it, I can't find the wind tunnel scene on YouTube. The movie names are a little confusing. All I could find was a 20 second clip showing their faces in G force, which was quite funny. Is there a longer clip of the whole scene?

  6. Becky, I can't find a clip of just the wind tunnel scene, but the film is in parts on YouTube. Here: The wind tunnel begins halfway through this 10 minute segment and concludes here: Unfortunately, it's dubbed in English and has been cut. Here: is the same scene, dubbed in another language, panned-and-scanned and of poor quality but uncut (or at least not cut as much).

  7. Sark, in looking for the links, somehow I stumbled on a wonderful clip of just the whole wind tunnel scene, great quality, undubbed (without subtitles, which is too bad because I bet they are funny). That is absolutely hilarious, and worth whatever time it took to film. I love the way the enemies almost try to help each other when the wind stops, and then go right back to trying to kill each other. The people in the booth are so funny, especially when they are all leaning to the side to watch part of the fight. I bet those 3 guys were bruised up plenty from all the falling. Just marvelous!