Billed as being volume 1 in “Master Lee's Drunkard Cinema”, both CHALLENGE THE DRAGON and THE NEEDLE AVENGER have quite a lot in common, besides the obvious. Both feature fight scenes on the side of a steep rock quarry hill and both showcase the acting chops and finely groomed mustache of Tsao Chien. One way in which they differ however is in there English language dubbing. They are both poorly dubbed, don’t get me wrong, but one features a dub so bad that it borders on brilliant.
No one likes a wimpy hero but in THE NEEDLE AVENGER, aka DRAGON VS
NEEDLES OF DEATH, that’s exactly what we get. When Chung Chu Chung (Ang
Fung) joins Master Tu Ling’s (Yim Chung) school of Kung Fu, he decides
to keep his special talent close to his chest. Chung’s Kung Fu may be
no good but he can throw a nail with deadly precession. Picked on and pushed
around by his classmates, Chung constantly holds back, never letting on to his
deadly skill, instead choosing to stay quiet and mostly to himself. It's not
until he begins to take a shine to the lovely Mei Lei (Wang Ping, KING BOXER)
that Chung begins to open up. Problem is Mei Lei is Sammy’s (Chiu Jun)
girl. Or at least it’s a problem for Sammy. Mei Lei doesn’t seem
to care one bit as she and Chung run off together one night to start a life
of their own.
Confused, Sammy too decides to run away, ending up in small village where he takes a job as a blacksmith. It is there that Sammy runs into Master Fung (Tsao Chien), his adoptive father and the one man standing in the way of the local criminal element from gaining control of the region. Just as it appears that Sammy has found his place in life, he is called away to the bed side of Master Tu Ling who has fallen ill, distraught over Sammy’s desertion. While away, Master Fung is killed by a couple of needles to the forehead. Of course there is only one man who can kill another in such a style, Chung Chu Chung, who is coincidentally living in the same small village with Mei Lei. Having gained employment within a gang of salt smugglers – a strange occupational choice for someone who clearly is not good with conflict – Chung was blackmailed into killing Master Fung by Chai Yuquai, the head of the local crime syndicate and if all this seems a little convoluted that’s because it is.
The biggest problem I had with THE NEEDLE AVENGER is that there wasn’t enough needle avenging. There are only two fight scenes in which Chung really lets the lead fly and both are so poorly choreographed they are hardly worth mentioning. Otherwise, the only objects that get to see the business side of a nail are a bunch of tree trunks. Chung does put his talent to good use, using his nails as a way of ripping off Mei Lei's robe but his reluctance to let loose and overall lack of confidence settles the picture into a funk early on that it never really manages to pull itself out of. Fight scenes in general are pedestrian and the acting is… actually I don’t think you can call it acting. The English dub is amusing, initially. The sound of fists inflecting bodily harm can be heard even when contact is never made between fighters but hearing the same loud and distorted “thwack”ing sound over and over quickly downgrades the experience from unintentional hilarity to monotonous annoyance. As a whole, despite is seemingly promising pitch of deadly spikes and Kung Fu, THE NEEDLE AVENGER is a rather lackluster martial arts entry.
THE DRAGON, also known as THE WAY OF THE TIGER, stars Tong Lung (THE FEROCIOUS
BROTHERS), a muscular fellow who looks like the offspring of Willem Dafoe and
Bruce Lee. A gently sloping hill proves to be prime real estate as it is a frequent
thoroughfare for traders. Looking to capitalize on the popular plot of land,
a local lumber corporation puts up a “Keep Out” sign and claims
it as its own. In order to protect its new investment, the corporation hires
a band of thugs to patrol the area and prevent trespassers from crossing. When
a young man and his father are roughed by the thugs in an attempt to cross,
word quickly gets back to Uncle Matthew (Tsao Chien), who is shocked to learn
of the incident and that the land has been claimed as private property. Meeting
with the owner of the lumber corporation (Shih Chung Tien, THE BATTLE WIZARD),
Uncle Matthew is persuaded by fellow businessman Mr. Chang (Cheung Wan-Man,
A TOUCH OF ZEN) to work with rather than against the corporation. Matthews’s
elderly sister-in-law (Sha Lee-Man) sees the plot for what it really is and
while she may be too frail to stand up for the local village farmers, her son
King (Tong Lung) is more than ready to bust some heads and kick some ass whenever
DRAGON's dubbing is rooted deeply in the “so bad it’s good” category and in many ways saves the picture from becoming THE NEEDLE AVENGER 2. Dialogue often extends far past mouth movement, if there is any movement at all and the film's foley work sounds like a clever but rushed job at best. Two grown men fighting in a river sound more like a newborn being washed in a sink and the sound of footsteps, be them running or walking, are so pronounced and clearly staged that it quite literally becomes a walking gag. The choice of voiceover actors also adds to the picture's enjoyment as most were clearly European. Matthews’s sister-in-law carried a slight British accent that had me chuckling and confused on more than one occasion. I’m still not sure if the villagers grew ginsang or ginseng as Sha’s character pronounces it both ways. The film's fight scenes are also more interesting than its double bill companion and King is certainly a more likeable character than Chung Chu Chung and Sammy combined. DRAGON also features a bit of female action in the likes of Seung Goon Hung Au who gets to kick a little butt in her pink pajamas and pigtails.
Released on VHS via Planet Video under its alternate title and on DVD thanks to a couple of low budget distributors, NEEDLE AVENGER is presented here in its original 2.31:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Colors are faded and the print is a bit beat up with varying amounts of debris. The image also leans to the left on occasion giving a slightly distorted feeling. The English-dubbed mono is adequate with the expected pops audible at reel changes. CHALLENGE THE DRAGON is also on hand with an anamorphic (2.31:1) widescreen transfer and picture quality that, while faring better than NEEDLE AVENGER, suffers from color fadeouts and random emulsion lines. The English-dubbed mono is actually quite clear. Besides opening with the Saturn logo and a single main menu which features an animation of Leo Fong (REVENGE OF THE BUSHIDO BLADE) and frequent Code Red commentary moderator Lee Christian, the only extras on this release are trailers for each of the features. Both trailers are presented fullscreen and in true ballyhoo fashion, do a tremendous job of selling each feature as far more entertaining than they actually are. Of course Adolph Caesar could read the label off of a prescription bottle and make it sound like a can’t miss event. (Jason McElreath)
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