Thursday, March 24, 2011

Four Riders (1972), starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-tai and Wong Chung. Directed by Chang Cheh.

(All images courtesy of Celestial Pictures.)

MUST a movie make sense to be enjoyable? Not really, and don't believe any high-brow film critic who says different. (Once in a while, they like something a little illogical, too.) Even if there's a followable storyline, it doesn't take much from the filmmakers' side of things to unintentionally envelop the audience in a fog if they're trying to establish a particular look or style to their picture. Sometimes, the results can come back to bite them on the butt, artistically and financially; when they work out favorably, it can be a unique anomaly of cinema, if not a cult classic. That said, does the Shaw Brothers oddity Four Riders measure up with the other entertaining doses of yang gang from the formidable Chang Cheh?

Somewhere in South Korea, it's the end of the Korean War. A Chinese veteran of the conflict, Feng Xia (Ti Lung), drives to Seoul for some relaxation after collecting his pension (in American currency) and liberating a jeep from an army colonel (Lo Wai) he recently decked. Along the way, he picks up a fellow soldier, Gao Yinhan (Wong Chung), who's heading in the same direction to see Li Weishi (Chen Kuan-tai), a retired First Lieutenant recuperating at a hospital from wounds received in battle.

Not long after the two part company in the city, Xia stumbles upon some guys who've just pummeled an American GI to death; to be exact, they're members of a drug cartel run by Boss Hawkes (Andre Marquis), and they killed the man for his refusal to be a mule on his return trip to the US. Xia is overwhelmed by them before he can leave, and Hawkes' second-in-command, Lei Tai (Yasuaki Kurata), frames him for the crime. As fate goes, until a trial date is set, the injured Xia is confined by SK MPs in the prison ward of the same hospital where Yinhan's visiting Weishi. Yinhan is certain Xia is innocent, and since Weishi feels he has no chance at being found not guilty, he suggests Yinhan get a gun that his nurse, Song Hua (Ching Li), can smuggle to Xia and use for a quick escape.

Meanwhile, when Xia's army buddy, Jin Yi (David Chiang), reads of his plight in a newspaper, he knows something fishy's going on, too; based on all the time he's spent visiting lovely hostess Wensi (Lily Li) at the Hello John Club owned by Hawkes, he knows of the illegal activities going on. He calls out Tai about what's being done to Xia, but he's soon beaten up by him and Hawkes' other flunkies. Only Hawkes' brassy girlfriend, Yinhua (Tina Chin Fei) saves him from a premature demise; after a night of sex with her, he sneaks off.

After a few leads that go nowhere, Yinhan finally gets lucky when he's offered a gun...by Tai; Hawkes wants Xia dead immediately, and he says he'll pay anyone who'll do the task. (I'm guessing the payment consists of hot lead.) Shrewdly, Yinhan pretends to accept the offer, and before too long, Xia breaks out of the hospital with Weishi and Yinhan. Tragically, Song Hua is shot by Hawkes' men as she flees with them, to the horror of Weishi.

Eventually, Yi joins up with the three fugitives. On the run from the SK army (while keeping one step ahead of Hawkes' confederates), they devise a plan to bring down Hawkes' operation and exonerate themselves in the eyes of SK military justice. While Yi returns to the Hello John to look for incriminating paperwork, the other three confront Tai and Hawkes' other men in a free-for-all at a gymnasium. There's only one complication to all of this; unknown to the four, the SKs are now on their way to the gym, and they believe the Chinese are part of Hawkes' gang....


The title Four Riders (re-titled as Strike 4 Revenge in the US) comes from a scene when Weishi reads aloud his favorite piece of Biblical scripture to his nurse; it's the only time this reference shows up in the entire film. In turn, the only things these four heroes ride are jeeps, and they're more concerned with saving their own hides than unleashing an apocalypse on the world. It's their urgency to rescue Xia, along with the need for all of them to survive long enough to stop Hawkes and have their names cleared, which propels this testosterone-drenched melodrama (with a hint of swagger) that could've only been directed by Chang Cheh.

The kick I've gotten out of watching FR all the times I have (over a dozen, so far) does not distract me from the fact that some-where between the completion of the script (by Cheh and Ni Kuang) and the wrap-up of filming, the setting of South Korea in July, 1953, was forgotten in the process. Money appears to have been the main reason why, and if Cheh had a few movies in various stages of production at the time, it might also explain why the story never got reworked. Getting down to basics, with all the '70s hair, wardrobe and other trap-pings on the screen, the lapse of historical accuracy in FR doesn't detract from its entertainment value, and it shouldn't bother you, either. (Imagine it's one of those dramatizations on America's Most Wanted or the History Channel.)

The film shot on location in SK by Kung Mu To is wonderful and fascinating to see, be it snow-covered ground or the narrow streets within Seoul. The scenery is so unique and refreshing (especially if you're not familiar with SK), when the movie cuts to a tell tale Shaw location (indoors or out), the contrast is great enough you feel cheated by this budgetary consideration because the SK footage makes the stuff shot at the studio look like crap. Anybody who gets easily bored with any studio-bound Shaw picture will relish this change of pace.

Each of the main players contributes good performances. Ti Lung exudes machismo as Xia, and the opening where he belts his former superior is a brilliant, dark-humored vignette that plays like an outtake from M*A*S*H. David Chiang is low-key and smooth as Yi, the brains of the quartet, though one of his early bits at the club (fine as they are) could've been dropped so he could join up with his comrades sooner to jumpstart the plot. As Yenshi, Chen Kuan-tai believably goes from the young guy in love with Song Hua to an anguished man who wants payback for her death. As Yinhan, Wong Chung (in his biggest role prior to being cast in The Deliquent) manages to avoid being the "fifth wheel" of the group with his athleticism and likeability, best illustrated by his first scene where he plays with some children. Only Lily Li (as Wensi) and Ching Li (as Song Hua) get short shrift with the usual type of parts Cheh often limited them to, but they elevate their minor contributions to another level through their acting.

Let's now give praise to the featured villain. Bypassing the laughable pastiness of Andre Marquis as Hawkes, Yasuaki Kurata is an inspired choice as Tai. During 1972, Kurata was relatively early into his career at Shaw, so his acting was still evolving, but the aura of suaveness he projected into performing "heavies" is already prominent. His martial arts moves are equally dynamic; he's into Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai's fight choreography with an intensity that threatens to overwhelm the abilities of the four leads. While his efforts only lose steam with his hilarious English dubbed voice (used when he talks to Hawke) and being (unconvincingly) clobbered by Chiang in one sequence, the man can successfully convey nastiness without overacting, which makes his work here (and in other movies) engrossing to watch.


For all the unevenness of FR, the picture doesn't lack in thrills and drama. Would FR be a better movie if Cheh had the money to make the production appear more authentic for the time period depicted? That notion can be debated, and Cheh's later historical epics like 7 Man Army, The Boxer Rebellion and The Naval Commandos are (for some) three good arguments that giving him bigger budgets didn't always yield better motion pictures.

Anyhow, I finished with trying to understand why Cheh let this film veer off course like he did a long time ago. I decided to stop making sense of FR and just enjoy it.

Brother Fang says: "Another 'sleeper' from Chang Cheh that's been nearly forgotten by people and shouldn't be! Warts and all, Cheh delivers the violence and suspense more than capably!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - While you still can, purchase it at PlayAsia by clicking here.

6 comments:

  1. I quite like this one mainly for its setting and the fact that Cheh, despite his output, was constantly attempting new ideas and settings while maintaining the themes closest to him.

    I don't know about now, but back then Asians didn't care about such things as in reference to the anachronisms. This still held true as late as 1996 with Jackie Chan's awful RUMBLE IN THE BRONX. In an interview on Jay Leno or Letterman, whichever it was, he also stated that Chinese didn't care about such things when he was asked why were mountains seen in the background of what was supposed to be New York.

    Personally, I failed to notice this in FOUR RIDERS apparently lost in the action and performances. It may have been you, Fang, that mentioned it first, but I had never paid attention to it before, lol. 1971 and '72 were two huge years for the director as you well know. I am constantly amazed at the level of quality Cheh was able to maintain with such a schedule.

    And I adore both his BOXER REBELLION and 7 MAN ARMY, the latter of which had consultants on board for accuracy, although I am not sure exactly how accurate it ended up being in relation to historical facts. REBELLION I think gets a bum rap, personally, and the only blunder in that one I can recall at this time is the wrong uniforms for the American soldiers.

    But again, Chinese audiences never paid much, if any attention to such things as they just cared about seeing the movie for the most part. Funnily enough, in promo materials, you often read a lot of ballyhoo on how historically accurate this film or that was during its production.

    Great, loving review, Fang, keep them coming!

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  2. Based on my experiences with TBR and 7MA (I saw both prior to FR), I expected a similar attention to period detail, so I was amazed by the turn of events here, commencing with those clothes at the Hello John! (Lily Li is smokin' in her hot pants, however!)

    There are definitely notable anachronisms of various sizes in quite a few of Cheh's movies, but it was the extreme to which they happened here that was astounding! Though I'm getting accustomed to expecting the unexpected in HK action cinema, FR was like getting beaned by a pitcher the first time I watched it!

    Still, like you, venoms5, I got caught in Cheh's moviemaking skill pretty fast, and this trip into "The Twilight Zone" was worth the money I paid for it! (They should show the English version of this on Spike; I think a lot of people who've watched the Bruce Lee movies on there would eat this up!)

    TBR and 7MA are very good as entertainment, too; it seems complaints about their attempts at historical accuracy came about (mostly) after their initial theatrical runs. The moment facts have to mix with any sort of fiction for the sake of storytelling, there'll always be somebody griping. (Once in a while, they will make a valid point about it).

    At any rate, these Cheh movies are mild stuff, compared to JFK! I wonder how many historians Oliver Stone drove pants-crapping mad?

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  3. You have style! In fact, I am passing onto you the "Stylish Blogger Award" passed onto me this morning. More people will see your work, and that is a good thing.

    Check out "Caftan Woman".

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  4. Well, from one Pauline Moore fan to another, thank you, Caftan Woman! This is a surprise! I was thinking you might have forgotten me, otherwise; it seems like a while since I left you a comment!

    Though I haven't left a comment your way since, I do take the time to check out your latest posts! Rest assured some more comments will come your way soon! :o)

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  5. Absolutely right! The only thing that bothered me about the film was the mini skirts and hot pants in mid-fifties South Korea, but you're right, it does not distract ultimately from the great action that takes place. Ti Lung, David Chiang Da Wei, Chen Kuan Tai and Wang Chung could carry the movie if everyone was wearing Victorian costumes. My favorite "M*A*S*H" scene, is of course, Fu Sheng rocking out at the juke box.
    Thanks for writing another great review.

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  6. Thanks for reading, Marla!

    As venoms5 has said, the Chinese audiences don't pay much mind to what a viewer from the West would label as mistakes. Of course, if we stubbornly stuck to holding out for movies that are better made and have proper story structure, we'd be missing out on some cool movies! I think the Chinese have the right mindset for watching movies; they're not uptight about it!

    Typically, when a given movie is bad, I find myself looking for something to nitpick on (or "riff" about) to maintain my attention in order to endure the whole feature (especially if I went through a big hassle to see it). Only the fact it was specifically set in SK in '53 did I react some to the "dramatic license" in the picture!

    This film could be remade (and given the look of proper authenticity), but I don't think any moviemaker could give it the surge of excitement and fun Cheh did!

    There're definitely many little moments of dark comedy here (even a little anti-war message)! FR has a veritable buffet of things to see and hear; you're guaranteed to go back for more! :o)

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