16 May THE DRAGON MISSILE, OR THERE AND BACK AGAIN: A VILLAIN’S TALE
By Matt L. Reifschneider of Blood Brothers Film Reviews
In terms of Shaw Brothers films, The Dragon Missile is about as straightforward as it gets and, for better or worse, it doesn’t necessarily strike out as particularly top notch in any of the genre categories. Even the biggest gimmick of the film, the titular weapons that Lo Lieh’s hired killer uses to decapitate his enemies and cut down random things with big flashy sparks, are essentially flying guillotine knockoffs – which is fitting since the original Flying Guillotine film was directed by the same man. Still, it’s hard not to find a lot of enjoyment in what The Dragon Missile has to offer in being that straightforward adventure film…and if you look deep enough, you might find some great approaches to the material that add a lot of value to it beyond what is on the surface.
Director Ho Meng-Hua is quite versed in the world of Shaw Brothers, starting his career early with the studio in the late 50s and becoming one of their most utilized directorial talents by the early and mid-1970s. In 1976, the year that The Dragon Missile was released, he released multiple films with some of the true gems in the Shaw Brothers catalog. He’s a talented director and, while The Dragon Missile is hardly his most artistic work, by the time that 1976 had rolled around he is certainly playing around in new genres like horror and whatever the hell you might consider The Oily Maniac. Keep in mind that at this point, he was moving in some new directions and that’s evident here in this film.
It’s Ho Meng-Hua’s ability to embrace the strengths of whatever film he was currently working on that makes The Dragon Missile so impeccably entertaining even if the main plotting is somewhat predictable. Instead of forcing it down a more traditional wuxia path, he embraces the one aspect of the film that does set it aside from many of its predecessors: the main protagonist is NOT the hero. Instead, he’s something of a cold-blooded and simple killer that is forced into running by the boss who betrays him. He is then forced to fight off a slew of antagonists – most of which have a very valid reason for wanting him dead to avenge the lives of their murdered loved ones. Fortunately, this character, Sima Jun, is played by the always reliable and very talented Lo Lieh who, in various films previously, has proven that he can ride the line between being a villainous monster and a character that the audience hopes will find his path to enlightenment. Making the film’s villain an odd approach for the film that does ultimately work to deliver the thrills and kills needed to embrace the film’s entertaining qualities and for that, it’s hard to be too critical.
Beyond the ‘villain is the protagonist’ slant, The Dragon Missile plays things fairly straightforward. There is a slew of gimmicky antagonists for our lead to fight his way through, a fun if not predictable evil conspiracy to navigate, and plenty of action to shake a bladed boomerang at. There are quite a few interesting secondary characters, particularly a young man and woman pairing that aims to take revenge against Sima Jun who essentially become the main heroes of the film, and it’s a bit disappointing that they don’t spend a bit more time developing them to counterbalance the focus on the various villains of the film. With a bit more time in these regards, The Dragon Missile might have reached more intriguing levels, but as is it’s hard to deny that it isn’t a focused film that delivers on most of its promises.
Compared to some of the more stylish films form Ho Meng-Hua of this period, The Dragon Missile does seem to be rather too straightforward in its approach. However, that in itself seems to be the stylistic choice made by the various creative forces behind the film and with a strong and strange spin on the usual focus of who is the protagonist versus the antagonists, the film stands out in more subtle ways. Fans of more thriller guided Shaw Brothers films or those who appreciate silly gimmicky weapons like The Flying Guillotine will definitely want to leap into the film. It’s fun, entertaining, and decent, but it’s just not necessarily something to lose one’s head over.
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