After having worked on television and helming several dramatic features, director Robert Clouse found his niche with the groundbreaking, profitable martial arts extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), which helped catapult the late Bruce Lee to posthumous superstardom in the United States. As Clouse was now associated with bringing chop-soky thrills to English-speaking cinema, the following year he merged the genre with a campy blaxploitation flick, resulting in BLACK BELT JONES (with DRAGON’s Jim Kelly in his first starring role), as well as GOLDEN NEEDLES, which tossed an American detective into the East meets West formula.
In modern day Hong Kong, there’s a gold statue that everyone wants to get their grimy hands on. The statue is priceless because it holds golden acupuncture needles that, when inserted by a trained professional, can result in super sexual prowess or painful death if the procedure is done incorrectly. An old man in possession of the statue applies the needles to an aged cripple, who then jumps off the slab with a newfound vigor which he will no doubt apply to his youthful female companions. He doesn’t get a chance though, as a couple of dudes in protective suits storm the place with flamethrowers, relentlessly torching everyone in the joint in order to snatch the statue and its precious needles, which will now be in the hands of the baddies.
A hired American “middle-woman” named Felicity (Elisabeth Ashley, WHEN MICHAEL CALLS) is in town to purchase the statue, but is unwilling to pay $250,000 for it (even though her mysterious employer grants her $300,000 to do so). On the suggestion of a local, she hires an American ex detective named Dan (Joe Don Baker, CHARLIE VARRICK) to obtain the statue, which he effortlessly does by cracking a safe and dodging a few karate-trained thugs. But after Dan and Felicity celebrate with fine cuisine and lovemaking in a hotel room, Dan’s old Chinese teacher is murdered and the statue is back in the hands of the cutthroat villains. Throw in a number of interested parties (as well as a phony decoy statue thrown in to confuse everyone) and you know the good guys are going to encounter a handful of street fights and threatening poisonous snakes, as well as the expected espionage, with the action moving back and forth from Hong Kong to the States.
While GOLDEN NEEDLES is not Clouse’s best work, the results are still enjoyable, especially if you like your violent, PG-rated action films with exotic locations and headshaking appearances by veteran Hollywood stars to pump up the marquee value. The plot is at least different in that what’s being sought after and what’s causing all the casualties is not your typical loot or drug cargo, making this a sort of update of THE MALTESE FALCON for the grindhouse crowd. Joe Don Baker (whose name appears above the title on the poster) was obviously chosen after headlining the smash vengeance action pic WALKING TALL the year before, and he does a decent job of playing the likable “down on his luck” good ol’ boy in a foreign land, whose boring existence just got that more exciting and perilous. He also has some chemistry with the appealing Ashley (underused in cinema during her heyday, as she was more of stage star) which feeds of the comic recurrence of her character abruptly disappearing, sometimes unintentionally. It’s hard to recall a movie where more people were smashed through glass (whether it’s window panels, doors or mirrors) than this one, and at times it’s shown in slow-mo for effect (this might also make for a fun drinking game)!
The martial arts aspect of GOLDEN NEEDLES is rather weak and sporadic, with a standout scene being a chaotic mass outburst when patrons refuse to be bullied out of a bar. Jim Kelly shows up halfway through the film as Dan’s old war buddy, but he’s pretty much wasted. Though the film’s end credits boast, "Jim Kelly's Fight Sequence Choreographed By Himself", he basically has one scene of this sort which takes place in a health club (at which point the audience is subjected to glances of middle-aged men’s naked asses for comic effect). Since the film was released during the time of all-star big budget extravaganzas, the poster, though centered on the shiny sculpture, featured those aligning boxes which flaunted the familiar cast members. Here we have Burgess Meredith deliciously overacting as an eccentric millionaire (with a mansion, hulking bodyguards and some showy bowties) wanting to get his hands on those damn golden needles, as well as Ann Sothern as the Madame-like proprietor of a gambling pit/seedy bar. She’s threatened with a pair of pliers to the fingers when she proves reluctant to reveal the whereabouts of our hero, Dan, who is also her pal. Lalo Schifrin provides a damn good score, much in the same style as he conjured up for Clint Eastwood's first two "Dirty Harry" entries.
Whereas most of the films Clouse directed for producer Fred Weintraub were distributed by Warner Bros, GOLDEN NEEDLES was released by American International Pictures (AIP). Never before released on home video in the United States, MGM has now issued the title as a manufactured-on-demand DVD as part of their Limited Edition Collection line. The transfer retains the film’s original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, with the color palette looking quite nice and the image free of any distracting blemishes or excessive grain. The mono English audio has a few hissy sections, but aside from that, is not problematic. No trailer (it’s available on Synapse’s “42nd Street Forever: Volume 3 – Exploitation Explosion” DVD) or chapter stops are included, but the viewer can move ahead though at ten minute intervals throughout the presentation. (George R. Reis)
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