Director: Godfrey Ho
Cast: Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock, Brendan Kelly, Steve Tartalia, Nicol Zanzarella, Roberto Gutierrez, Robin Berry, Chris Grall, Robinlynn Sweeney
Running Time: 97 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When it comes to Hong Kong cinema, there are a handful of directors whose reputation precedes them, and arguably Godfrey Ho is one of them. For better or worse, Ho pioneered a business model that involved cutting corners in increasingly imaginative ways to create ‘movies’ (I use the term loosely) that could be distributed internationally. His modus operandi involved cheaply purchasing international distribution rights for Korean and Taiwanese kung-fu flicks, which he then dubbed into English, slapped with a new title, and billed himself as the director. Soon Ho tweaked the formula further, so that if the movies he’d purchased turned out be too dialogue heavy, he’d completely re-edit the whole thing into a different plot entirely. Done via mercilessly removing and re-arranging scenes, and using the English dub to create a new narrative, the result was often an incomprehensible mess, but one that didn’t impact the sales.
Ho would reach the apex of his powers in the 2nd half of the 80’s. When the western world had become gripped by ninjas, in a stroke of genius he recruited B-movie actor Richard Harrison and various other gweilo ‘talent’ (I use this word even more loosely) to film a bunch of ninja scenes. However far from making his own ninja movie, instead Ho used his ninja footage to create what became known as the cut ‘n’ paste movie. Using the skills acquired through reediting entire movies into completely new stories, Ho spread out his ninja footage by sparingly splicing it into the other movies he’d purchased (typically Korean, Taiwanese, or Thai), creating increasingly far out plots in the process. Kind of like getting 10 movies for the price of 1, regardless of the exact quantity of ninja action, you better believe the word Ninja appeared in the title of all of them, giving such celluloid atrocities instant overseas appeal.
While it’s these movies Ho will be remembered for, on the rare occasion he did actually sit in the director’s chair, making a handful of movies from start to finish. Coming towards the latter part of his career, he’d helm a trio of cheapo Girls with Guns flicks in the form of Angel Enforcers, Princess Madam, and Lethal Panther, and cashed in on T.F. Mou’s notorious Men Behind the Sun by making 2 exploitation heavy sequels (Laboratory of the Devil and A Narrow Escape). In the early 90’s Ho even ventured across the pond to America to make Honor and Glory and Undefeatable with Cynthia Rothrock (movies that, for the first time in his career, he’d ironically make different edits of for the Hong Kong audience, re-titling them Angel the Kickboxer and Bloody Mary Killer respectively). It was America that Ho would return to in 1998 to make what would become his swansong, re-teaming with Rothrock for Manhattan Chase.
To put any misconceptions aside, the productions 2000 release date isn’t because his final movie was a 2-year long labour of love, but rather once completed no American distributor wanted to touch it (which according to an interview with Ho was because the U.S. home “video market fell down”), and “B grade American movies cannot be released in Hong Kong because there are no names like Tom Cruise.” So it was Manhattan Chase was left to disappear into the annals of DTV action, only receiving a VHS release in Brazil of all places, and a DVD in Australia. Guess who lives in the latter!? While it’s true Ho’s swansong doesn’t have Tom Cruise, what it does have is Loren Avedon (No Retreat, No Surrender 2, King of the Kickboxers), an actor who in the same interview Ho describes as “not professional” and “not a very good actor.” While I can’t speak for the former, Manhattan Chase certainly leaves no question that Ho was right on the latter.
With Ho rebilling himself as ‘Godfrey Hall’, Manhattan Chase is just as incomprehensible as many of his cut ‘n’ paste productions, and has clearly been shot guerrilla style on what looks like a camcorder, featuring on-location shooting in Central Park, someone’s apartment, and various derelict areas of dockland. The plot sees Avedon playing a hitman for the mob, who in the opening scene we see arrested by Rothrock’s cop. Armed with a sniper rifle and decked out in a balaclava, Avedon’s choice of location for the hit isn’t some apartment window under the cover of night, but rather the middle of Central Park in broad daylight, so it’s not really surprising that he gets caught. Skip 6 years later and he’s out of prison (I assume that’s the maximum sentence for premeditated murder), having turned a new leaf and just wanting to be a good father to his son, an annoying kid played by Robin Berry in his (thankfully) one and only screen appearance.
In what feels like a series of events beamed straight out of a Mexican telenovela, Avedon’s attempts to reconcile with his son are interrupted when a woman jumps into his car while trying to escape from the mob (yes – his ex-employees!), believing she’s in possession of missing drugs that they intended to sell. Naturally, good natured Avedon takes her under his wing, so the trio move into his former cell mates (who apparently has also gone straight) apartment to bring their lives back on track together. Avedon isn’t the only one who’s turned a new leaf though, as it turns out his former junkie ex-wife is still in the picture, having now cleaned up her act with the support of her cop sister played by – yeah – Cynthia Rothrock. So basically Rothrock arrested her brother-in-law, a point which somehow fails to be raised by, well, anyone.
Will romance sizzle between Avedon and the damsel in distress? Will jealousy rear its ugly head? Can Avedon really go straight with the mob after his unintended passenger? Where are the drugs anyway? Oh, and “how come seagulls never fly to the city, and pigeons never fly to the beach?” Ok, that last part is a line from Avedon’s permanently miserable son in-between playing with his newly gifted Gameboy (that at least has a cartridge in it, unlike a certain Rumble in the Bronx), but it’s still just as pertinent as the others. Ho at least sees to it that they’re all answered, punctuated by a light sprinkling of fight action choreographed by gweilo regular Steve Tartalia (Trinity Goes East, Death Cage), who also appears in front of the camera and gets a brief but satisfying fight with Avedon.
However Manhattan Chase is definitely more Avedon’s show than it is Rothrock’s, with her appearances being intermittent, but still showing up enough to look like a method actor next to Avedon’s energetic but misguided performance (not once does he convince as a hitman!). Tartalia’s choreography feels very much steeped in the 80’s Hong Kong kickboxing style, and it makes for a surreal if welcome experience seeing it transplanted to the back alleys and docklands of New York, with stunt guys spinning themselves into tables and all the usual HK action tropes present and accounted for. At one point Ho even channels John Woo, with Avedon arriving on scene to indulge in some slow motion double fisted handgun action, and lifting the Chow Yun Fat versus Lung Ming-Yan standoff from A Better Tomorrow 2 wholesale. It’s just a shame the scene ends with Avedon holding the mob at gunpoint by yelling “Drop your pants, DROP YOUR PANTS!!!”
The New York setting also allows for a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Ron Van Clief (Tough Guy, Way of the Black Dragon), his old school action credentials making me think what a shame it was that John Liu wasn’t around attempting to make New York Ninja at the same time as Manhattan Chase. Despite being shot 14 years apart, the guerrilla style filmmaking and detached from reality feeling see them share similar DNA, and who wouldn’t want to see John Liu trade kicks with the likes of Avedon and Rothrock. As it stands though, from Cynthia Rothrock giving chase to roller-skating thieves on a snail-paced battery powered scooter, to Loren Avedon stuffing up his lines but still having them appear in the final cut, Manhattan Chase is an undeniably sloppy effort from all involved.
In what’s the biggest irony of all, perhaps believing that Manhattan Chase would never see the light of day, Godfrey Ho allowed for its footage to form part of Philip Ko Fei’s 2001 ultra cheapie Set Me Free for My Way Films. The fact that the master of the cut ‘n’ paste approach to filmmaking’s last movie would itself be cut up and interspersed into another production is truly destiny manifest, and something you couldn’t make up if you tried. If you’re a fan of Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock, or Godfrey Ho (yes, they’re out there), then as his final movie before starting a career teaching filmmaking at a Hong Kong university (you couldn’t make that up either), Manhattan Chase is a welcome curiosity, even if it’s not necessarily a good one.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10