A curious beast of a martial arts flick is The Magnificent Bodyguards (1978). Director/producer Lo Wei had already made his name as a film maker from his work in association with Bruce Lee, helming The Big Boss (1971), Lee's first big movie upon his return to Hong Kong cinema -- and quickly following up with the legendary Fist of Fury (1972). This film featured a young stunt man in a small role, by the name of Jackie Chan; and when Lee ended his association with Lo Wei, Chan got the chance to take centre stage in a series of films very different in style to those that the star is better known for today. Chan was contracted to a series of martial arts fantasy films that draw inspiration from Chinese myth and legend; his screen persona is not the joke making happy-go-lucky character of later films, and comedy is kept to a minimum. Instead, here, Chan plays a bodyguard -- dressed in traditional Mandarin costume, with long hair -- with a reputation as "the fastest fist in the East". The film at first seems to follow the rather standard plotting formula of sending Chan's character, Ting Chung, on a dangerous cross-country mission, along with a collection of misfit comrades. Lo Wei adds interest, though, by embracing a near-ludicrous series of twists and reversals that just about work by dint of the film's mythological fantasy element: it plays like a cross between an epic Western and a Hollywood sci-fi movie -- perhaps because Star Wars (1977) -- and, by association, its second rate imitators -- relied heavily on films such as Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958). The Magnificent Bodyguards amply cashes in that debt to Asian cinema by not only relying on a similar plot, but shamelessly stealing some of John Williams's most well-known music cues from Star Wars!
Perhaps because he'd been deprived of his biggest star after Bruce Lee's defection, Lo Wei does his best to compensate by stuffing the film with some of the finest practitioners of martial arts in Asian cinema at the time. Chan's talents were clear to see, and although fans now widely regard Chan's Lo Wei films as inferior to his later works, where the star started to gain more control over his own output and even directed himself on occasion, they are still fine exhibition pieces for Chan's skills in choreography and his lightning fast reflexes. Chan is joined by the equally skilled James Tien as a swordsman with a nasty habit of skinning his victims if they get on the wrong side of him. Tien often found himself overshadowed by the success of Bruce Lee so it is nice to see him having fun with a bizarre role which has him, among other things, dealing brutally with a dart throwing foe (called, naturally enough, The God of a Thousand Darts) by slicing off both of his arms! The third of Chan's companions is a deaf leather worker played by Bruce Liang, who in name and looks, was intended as something of a Bruce Lee stand-in (although he seemed rather too short for the job). This trio are given the job of transporting the sick brother of the beautiful princesses, Lam Nan, across the treacherous bandit-controlled "Stormy Mountains". Nothing is as it seems of course: Ting Chung may have another motive for taking on the job, and Lam Nan may not be telling the whole truth about the reasons for the quest. Nevertheless, Chung and his two friends are joined by Lam Nan herself and two twin swords-women dressed in flowing pink robes and stylish flat, veiled hats who make an unlikely procession as they tramp across the Chinese countryside to the accompaniment of a rousing song proclaiming: "Together as one, we will conquer the Stormy Mountains!"
Most of the film's running time details various escapades as the travelling party are pitched against a bewildering array of bandits -- including what appear to be Native American Indians!? James Tien has some unfinished business with the lover of The God of a Thousand Darts: a woman called Lady Liu, who is out to revenge the death of her beau; and this story line soon connects up with the schemes of the villainous lord of The Stormy Mountain, Lord Chu, and a mysterious man with six fingers! The various fight set-pieces are fast and furious and sometimes quite surreal. The conclusion is utterly barmy but take this as a piece of light-hearted fantasy and the whole thing is an entertaining feast of silliness and excellent fight action. The film was originally shot in 3D: something that quickly becomes apparent since all of the fight sequences have been shot to maximise the number of weapons (swords or poles, in this case), hissing snakes, tumbling boulders, and even, occasionally, Jackie Chan's lightning fists, that come barreling towards the viewer in quick succession! Many of these effects may well have been quite unnerving in the film's original 3D version but, inevitably, they quickly become rather tiresome when one only has the standard two dimensional incarnation to judge the film by.
Hong Kong Legends have long impressed with the beauty and vividness of their DVD transfers, but, ironically, now that they make a big thing of their "ultra-bit" DVD editions, the quality of this particular transfer is noticeably lacking: the image is soft, blurry and washed out, with poor black levels. We still get both the Cantonese and English dub versions, and there is an enthusiastic commentary from Andrew Staton who defends the film from its detractors. But one cannot help feeling disappointed, after seeing the excellence of the transfers of many of the other films in Hong Kong Legends' catalogue, that the image quality is so poor though.