OPERATION CONDOR (1991)
(Directed by Jackie Chan)
(Written by Edward Tang and Jackie Chan)
(Starring Jackie Chan, Carol Cheng and Eva Cobo)
Plot: The professional adventurer/treasure hunter known as Condor (Jackie Chan, reprising his Asian Hawk character) is hired to find Nazi Gold in the Sahara desert, but he must evade ruthless mercenaries who also want the loot. Also known as “Armour of God 2: Operation Condor” and “Fei ying gai wak“.
When “Rumble in the Bronx” became a box office hit in the United States, propelling Jackie Chan into the American mainstream, distributors were eager to capitalize on his fame and probably found their pants tightening when they discovered his catalogue of Hong Kong Productions. They likely felt a strange, sticky sensation when they realized that like “Rumble in the Bronx“, his more recent projects were designed to have a strong international appeal- using increased production values, a handful of western actors and different countries for the settings. I remember theatrical releases for “Operation Condor“, “The Legend of Drunken Master“, “First Strike“, “Supercop” and “Mr. Nice Guy“, not even realizing (at the time) that these were all dubbed movies that originally belonged to China. Of course, now I know that most of these examples were sequels to the films which established Jackie as a star in Asia, but you’d never guess that based on the International marketing campaigns. “The Legend of Drunken Master” was really “Drunken Master II” (although this is the exception to my ignorance, as I was aware of its origins), “Supercop” was really “Police Story 3“, “First Strike” was really “Police Story 4” and “Operation Condor” was really “The Armour of God 2“. While many have ridiculed this bizarre distribution strategy, I have come to understand and respect the decision to cast these sequels as original stories. “Police Story“, “Police Story 2“, “Drunken Master (1)” and “The Armour of God” are all highly regarded by kung fu fanatics, but they’re intended primarily for Chinese audiences. The style of comedy will go over the heads of western audiences and in some cases, might be offensive and I assume that Eastern audiences will feel the same way about American humor. Furthermore, we’re used to the polished productions from Hollywood, so even the more expensive Hong Kong films during this time period will look cheap by our standards. But above everything- Kung Fu and Foreign Cinema will always have cult followings in the United States, but most Americans weren’t (or aren’t?) interested in seeing foreigners being the heroes in their foreign countries. I personally love watching cinema from different cultures and countries, but I am still part of a minority- or at least was during the 1990’s. Jackie Chan eventually realized this and began catering to our expectations by developing Chinese action flicks which resembled Hollywood productions. In essence- we were so stupid that we were tricked into thinking that these were American films. From America! But his gambit obviously worked, as this lead to Jackie starring in actual Hollywood productions and becoming a worldwide icon.
You might be thinking that this opening paragraph is kind of pointless as it doesn’t directly tie into my feelings regarding “Operation Condor” and…you’re kind of right…I just find this to be an interesting topic! The REAL reason why distributors were correct in snubbing “The Armour of God” in favor of “Operation Condor” is that “Operation Condor” is just…better…I sincerely believe that it is the superior film in nearly every way! From a writing perspective- this sequel has a more coherent storyline, a sturdier narrative, stronger characterizations and a more consistent tone. That isn’t to say that the script is without its flaws and quite frankly, even it’s strengths aren’t that impressive, but it’s an improvement. The characters aren’t particularly deeply written, but they do provide enough of a platform for allowing the actors to show off their personalities and I thought they were quite endearing. Did the bickering between Elsa (Eva Cobo) and Ada (Carol Cheng), or their banter with Jackie himself, get tiresome? Maybe a little bit, but the tensions make more sense here and gradually fade away as the film progresses. This is in complete contrast to “The Armour of God“, where the verbal battles nearly poisoned the well. I also thought that the actors and actresses had much more compelling chemistry, so I actually found the hostile flirting between Jackie and his ladies to be more cute than annoying- even though it does occasionally test my patience. They even start to flesh out Asian Hawk/Condor (Jackie Chan) and differentiate him from Jackie’s other characters by making him a lovable sleazeball. Once again, nothing special, but better. The plot is easier to follow and they even attempt to develop the antagonist, even if it’s somewhat rushed and forced. The narrative occasionally loses focus, such as when the story is hijacked by slave traders, but it never ran out of steam. I’m also not entirely sure why Momoko (Shôko Ikeda) needed to be here, other than to expand Jackie’s harem and…oh, she’s Japanese? She’s probably present in order to boost ticket sales in Japan, reinforcing the international appeal angle, but I wish she could’ve been added more seamlessly to the narrative.
I also thought that the comedy was surprisingly…*gasp*…funny…gasp*…Even in translation! There are still some things which won’t sit well with us westerners, such as the racist caricatures and misogyny, but at least actual jokes were designed around them. A lot of time was put into setting up funny lines/situations/reacts and then giving us a proper pay-off. Both movies open with Jackie stealing a treasure from a tribe, but what was the joke in “The Armour of God“? They were really, really dumb. Here, the situation is amusing because the scene plays off our expectations by having the tribe generously offering Jackie their treasure…only to get pissed once he starts drinking their water. That amuses me a lot more than Jackie hiding behind a statue and pretending to be a god and them falling for it. Many have complained about the treatment of women and even I was sometimes uncomfortable, even if the abuse they receive was not portrayed as comical. Usually. When Jackie removed Elsa’s towel in order to distract the villains, I raised an eyebrow, as I wasn’t sure if I should be offended. But when Elsa did the same thing to Ada with the same intent, only for Jackie to become distracted instead, I will admit to laughing pretty hard, as they built up to that perfectly. I won’t say “Operation Condor” is devoid of Chinese Humor, as there is the familiar extreme mugging and broad physical comedy, but I’ve never claimed that Jackie should abandon his roots. I can only judge something based on my own perspective, so when I complain about Chinese comedy, it’s usually because I am not ‘in on the joke’. That doesn’t mean their sense of humor is inferior and if anything, its presence gives texture to “Operation Condor“. I suppose this reflects how “Operation Condor” was designed for mass appeal, not just the Chinese or United States markets. Not every joke connected, with some of the racial stereotypes being too silly for my tastes, but I’d say at least 70% of the comedic material worked for me on some level. The tone was also much more consistent than its predecessor, as the film retains its light hearted flow even when the stakes are being increased. There are no jarring scenes of gunmen massacring civilians in graphic detail, so I didn’t feel any mood whiplash.
But even though I spent a lot of time on the script, it is merely supposed to be the glue which holds the action set pieces together. I only focused on the writing so much to emphasize this sequels superiority over the original. But as crappy as “The Armour of God” was on a storytelling level, there can be no denying that it was excellent when it came to martial arts choreography and ambitious stuntwork. Was “Operation Condor” able hold its own against such a powerful foe? This is a little more complex, because both films actually have different strategies for entertaining us. “The Armour of God” had Jackie perform a handful of insane, innovative stunts, which the narrative methodically built up towards for maximum impact. “Operation Condor” never quite reaches the suicidal madness of its predecessor, but it also seemed to have an increased number of daring, high octane stunts, spread evenly throughout the narrative. While Jackie continues to put his body on the line, I noticed that much of the crazier moments within this sequel belonged to the stuntmen (who are usually fighting our hero). The choreography in “The Armour of God” was a lot more violent and intense, while “Operation Condor” aims for elegance and style. I’m not really putting one over the other, as it really comes down to your personal preferences and my own depends on what I’m in the mood for. Jackie Chan has been utilizing the sets and props to enhance his fight scenes for a long time and “The Armour of God” was no exception, but “Operation Condor” perfects this gimmick. There was a lot more creativity in how they were used and they must’ve been incredibly difficult to pull off. Even the lesser maneuvers left me stunned. The kung fu is beautifully choreographed, showcasing Jackie’s usual defensive style, although I noticed him execute some legitimate martial arts holds as well- something he doesn’t do too often. I would say there were more martial arts-based action sequences in “Operation Condor“, although “The Armour of God” had lengthier individual fights. There is still a variety of action though, as we get an incredible car chase with lots of collateral damage and the giant turbine fan elevated the finale from ‘awesome‘ to ‘awesome +50%‘. One major difference between this and its predecessor is that “The Armour of God” had Jackie mostly playing the straight man, while here he is the comedic relief. I found his facial expressions during his fights to be hilarious and even when he really starts hamming it up near the end, I was cracking up. His physical comedy is just so great and “Operation Condor” brings out the best of him.
Jackie Chan directed “The Armour of God” in 1986 and “Operation Condor” in 1991 and it’s shocking seeing how much he had grown as a director in such a short period of time. The visuals are so much more sophisticated, with every camera angle enhancing the action and providing additional scale to the set pieces. The production values have been dramatically increased- meaning they could afford better equipment, shoot in exotic locations and build/rent much more elaborate sets. And then they can destroy those same elaborate sets. And it looks f@cking awesome. The cinematography showcases more impressive lighting and set design, with the camera seemingly moving along with the performers during the fight scenes. The editing was much smoother as well (there are some awkward transitions; but this might just be the version I saw), keeping the pacing swift and these attributes united to make the action feel so much more fluid and exciting. I was also pleased to notice that Jackie finally captured that Indiana Jones-esque atmosphere which he was unable to accomplish with the first movie. The exotic locales create a great sense of adventure and Jackie makes sure to interact with them, making the settings part of the action and it is AWESOME. I love this movie. Even with its flaws, “Operation Condor” embodies every cool about Jackie Chan and the distributors were correct in severing its ties as a sequel and delivering it while Jackie’s iron was hot in the U.S. They were f@cking morons for packaging “The Armour of God” as the sequel though, as it was the wrong way to introduce that movie to America (and especially me). My only real question is…what do the Chinese think about “Operation Condor“? It was a huge hit over there (and in all of Asia), but did they feel like it was too American for their tastes? Did they think the humor was too soft? That there weren’t enough Chinese actors? Eventually Jackie’s ‘international’ style did lead to a backlash in China and he was accused of being a sellout. This doesn’t appear to have had an impact on his box office numbers, but I can understand the argument. I don’t think Jackie ever forgot his roots though and it’s obvious he prefers making movies in his home country, as he usually badmouths his Hollywood productions and never stays abroad for long. Over 20 years later, he would make a third entry in the newly minted trilogy called “Chinese Zodiac” and I thought that was pretty good too, even if Jackie’s age limited what he could do. But “Operation Condor” was made during the perfect time period, as Jackie had enough experience as a director, his star power allowed for massive budgets and he was still young enough to defy God and gravity with his jaw dropping stunts.
Violence: PG-13. The violence against women really bothered some people.
Nudity: There is some, actually. Three shots of a female back-side.
Overall: “The Armour of God 2: Operation Condor” contains everything I love about Jackie Chan and downplays everything which usually annoys me about his works. A classic amongst action movies!