Wednesday, June 30, 2010


This lightweight international co-production between Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw and Italian producer Carlo Ponti amalgamates chop-socky martial arts combat with gritty Spaghetti western violence. An Asian kung fu master teams up with an American gunslinger to find his uncle's treasure. Variously known as either "Blood Money" or "The Stranger and the Gunfighter," this tame 'East Meets West' oater is predictable but amusing nonsense. The humor that lies at the bottom of the plot is that four women have tattoos on their backsides that reveal the whereabouts of a fortune in gold. "Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye" director Antonio Margheriti and scenarists Miguel De Echarri and Barth Jules Sussman have incorporated a sex comedy in this Kung Fu/Spaghetti western. The running joke is that our heroes must obtain permission from four women to eyeball their butts. Veteran western villain Lee Van Cleef twirls his six-gun, while the often outnumbered Lo Lieh performs gravity-defying kung fu. Incidentally, Lieh emerged as the first martial arts superstar before Bruce Lee. "Blood Money" came about during Van Cleef's career when he started wearing a hairpiece. Despite his age, the actor spends the last ten minutes baring his whiplashed chest. The production values are sumptuous.

Martial arts movies were increasingly going mainstream by the early 1970s, and "Blood Money" (**1/2 out of ****) exemplified one of a handful of Italian westerns with Kung Fu. Not only did producer Run Run Shaw co-produce this hybrid horse opera, but he also co-produced the Hammer vampire epic "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires" during the same year in 1974. Mind you, "Blood Money" premiered in Spain in 1974, but illuminated American screens two years later in 1976. Initially, the Tony Anthony western "The Silent Stranger" should have qualified as the first 'East Meets West' Kung Fu/Spaghetti western. Produced in 1968, "The Silent Stranger" was not released by MGM until 1975, so it beat "Blood Money" to the draw. Earlier, James Bond director Terence Young had helmed a European western with Charles Bronson as an outlaw who reluctantly joins up with Japanese samurai warrior ToshirĂ´ Mifune to recover the Nippon ambassador's valuable ceremonial sword. Director Mario Caiano's "Shanghai Joe" (1972) followed "Red Sun" and concerned a Chinese immigrant Chin How (Chen Lee) who helps Mexican laborers from their sadistic boss. Sergio Corbucci even got into this genre in 1975 with "Shoot First... Ask Questions Later" (1975) as a samurai warrior helps a lawman find a treasure.

Dakota (Lee Van Cleef of "Barquero") arrives in Monterey by train. A conductor confronts our protagonist as he slips out from under the passenger coach. Before the conductor can do anything to him, Dakota escapes in a cloud of steam. Breaking into the local bank, Dakota picks the lock to the safe but he finds only photographs of women. Meantime, one of those women alerts Wang (Al Tung), a short fat Asian fellow that somebody is in the bank. Wang scrambles over to the bank. Dakota relies on explosives to blow the vault. As the dynamite explodes, Wang is blown off his feet. Dakota finds a fortune cookie and the photographs. He queries Wang about the contents, but Wang has died. The authorities arrive and arrest Dakota. Meanwhile, in Asia, kung fu teacher Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh of "Five Fingers of Death") is escorted by the warlord's troops to his headquarters. The warlord questions Ho's father about his deceased brother who left behind nothing valuable. The warlord confronts Ho. "I was tricked by your uncle. Unwisely, I entrusted him with a vast fortune and all he did to repay me before he died was to send me that wooden figures." The warlord indicates the statue of a noble Plains Indian chieftain. Since nobody can satisfy the warlord’s curiosity, he gives Ho's sister to the guards. Ho intervenes but to no avail. Nevertheless, Ho’s martial arts skills impress the warlord. "You're brave and intelligent and I believe you can be useful in recovering my fortune," he informs Ho. "Find my gold in one year or all of you will --," the warlord completes his sentence with a slashing motion at his throat.

Ho arrives in Monterey. He meets with Wang’s lawyer and learns his uncle left behind a $1000 and four photographs of women. According to the lawyer, Wang's death was ruled accidental. Nevertheless, the authorities sentenced Dakota to swing. The lawyer (Paul Costello of “Cannibal Apocalypse”) adds that Dakota's trial lasted several months. Not surprisingly, Ho encounters racism in a saloon and defends himself against two gunslinging bouncers. The sheriff (Barta Barri of “Horror Express”) arrests Ho for hitting him. Ho lands in a cell next to Dakota. Dakota assures Ho that he didn’t murder his uncle. Moreover, Dakota acquired no fortune. The sheriff releases Ho. Later, the Asian rescues Dakota as he stands poised on the gallows’ trapdoor with his noggin in a noose. Together, Dakota and Ho embark on an unusual search for Wang's four mistresses. Along the way, they incur the wrath of a hypocritical preacher, Yancey Hobbitt (Julian Ugarte of “Autopsy”), who wears a long, black duster with a ridiculous hat. Yancey quotes scripture and wields a devastating six-gun. Yancey abducts the Chinese mistress (Karen Yeh of “The Iron Dragon”) with the aid of a Mexican bandit (Ricardo Palacios of “Return of the Seven”) and his gang. They take her to an old mission. Dakota and Ho follow, but they have a minor falling out when Ho refuses to let Dakota accompany him. Calico captures Dakota when the American tries to sneak into the mission. He uses a bullwhip on Dakota to loosen his tongue about Ho. Ho helps Dakota escape, and Dakota appropriates a Gatling gun. He places the Gatling gun between two horses in harness and rides through the mission firing the weapon and exterminates half of Calico’s gang, while Ho releases the Chinese mistress. Yancey has tried to torture her to translate the tattoos by suspending her in a metal cage and stoking blaze beneath to loosen her tongue. Fittingly, Dakota kills Yancey when the dastard lunges for a gun in a dead man's hand.

Margheriti directs with customary aplomb. Everything unfolds fluidly. Clocking in a 107 minutes, "Blood Money" looks like a Spaghetti western, but the sex comedy often undercuts the usual high body count violence. "Goliath against the Giants" lenser Alejandro Ulloa gives everything a larger-than-life grandeur. "Secret Agent Fireball" composer Carlo Savina drums up a snappy, non-western orchestral score. Savina's music has nothing in common with the quintessential Ennio Morricone Spaghetti western music with whistles, bells, and whipcracks. Interestingly, the mission that Calico and his bandits occupy is the same fortress that Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown assaulted in "El Condor." Indeed, the fortress was constructed for "El Condor" and has appeared in other major films, such as "Conan the Barbarian" and "A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die." The ending may surprise those who aren't expecting it. It is a hoot to see Lee Van Cleef in a Chinese bamboo hat and robe in the final scene in Hong Kong.