When BCI announced that they were putting up the double bill of Chinese Hercules (1974) and Black Dragon (1973) under their grindhouse banner of budget, genre releases, I had a good giggle because the two are a fitting combo. I just don't mean this in the superficial sense that the two are C to D grade kung fu films that came out around the same time during the post Bruce Lee/Enter the Dragon explosion. No, what made me giggle was the fact that the twosome are a perfect merger because they were sold in the US via their second banana stars. Michael Chan is the true lead of Chinese Hercules but the film's main henchman Bolo Yeung and his mighty pectorals were an easier image to sell. Likewise, Black Dragon's star is Jason Pai Piao (credited on US prints as Jason Pai Pow) but peripheral good guy Ron Van Clief was the selling point that the distributors used to cash in on the blaxploitation trend.
Chinese Hercules and Black Dragon also share a common setting and source of villany for their protagonists. Jason Pai Piao and Micheal Chan play guys working at the docks. In Hercules, Micheal is a martial student who has run away, changed his name, and sworn off fighting (going so far as to smash his hand with a rock) because he believes he accidentally killed his true love's brother during a tussle. He slaves away at the docks and when some gangsters show up wanting to take over and run off all the villagers, Micheal has many a brooding, teeth gnashing, stare at his clenched fist conflicted moment over whether he should intervene. In Dragon, Jason is poor country boy who goes to the Philippines to find work at- where else?- the docks and finds employment with- you guessed it- gangsters who want to strong arm all the dock workers and smuggle drugs. Jasons quandary isn't quite as engaging as Micheals because, after a group of goodie goodies tell Jason of his employers illegal shenanigans, Jason has trouble fighting back because he... uh... signed a contract. I guess in 1970's Philippines contracts with illegal drug runners were really binding.
In an odd way, Micheal Chan shouldn't feel short changed that Bolo was sold as the star of Chinese Hercules. The plotting of the film has his character not fighting for 90% of the running time, which by proxy means we get a scrawny old man fight (dueling dockworker elders) in the middle section. So, despite the fact that Bolo really doesn't start busting skulls until the one hour mark, he has equal, if not more, action running time as the film's hero. The better feature of the two, Chinese Hercules story and action are pretty typical, serviceable basher fare. The fight choreography is very grounded, no elaborate set-ups, therefore its more about being impactful than flashy.
Black Dragon is a really mediocre flick with messy plotting and direction. The action, for the most part, is pretty weak and has one of the most unforgivable sins in a martial film- a total, brief, lackluster stinker of a finale fight. Jason Pai Piao was always a very underrated martial star and this is one of those underwhelming numbers that seriously short changes his skill. Likewise, credited director and actor Tony Lui Jun Guk would go on to helm much better films like the wild Holy Flame of the Martial World, Magic Curse, Bastard Swordsman and Tiger Over a Wall.
The DVD: BCI
Picture: Chinese Hercules gets the better Anamorphic Widescreen treatment while Black Dragon has a lesser Non-Anamorphic and seemingly slightly cropped print. Both definitely show their age, wear and tear, dirt, splotches, and lines. Dragon especially has some bad green lines that are almost ever present and some very bad artifacts and noise.
Sound: What'd'ya' expect? 5.1 Surround? Nah, in keeping with the "grindhouse" ideals, you get some scratchy, mono, English dubs for both. For fans of cheesy dubbing, Hercules is a real winner with those classic use of frequent "but still" pauses. Dragon, on the other hand, has its own dubby charm in the use of stolen soundtrack cues including Once Upon a Time in the West and, I'm not quite sure, either Love Story or Ice Castles.
Extras: The disc has a "grindhouse experience" feature where you can play both films back to back with trailer interludes. The films and the trailers (The Street Fighter, Sister Street Fighter, Superchick, Deadly China Doll, 5 Fingers of Death, and Horror High) can also be viewed separately. It's a shame they didn't include the original US trailers for Black Dragon and Chinese Hercules, the latter being a hyperbolic wonder boasting Bolo as "The Superhuman Beast of the East!... The first and only Muscle-Mad Monster of the Martial Arts!... Bone-Cracker, Head-Crusher, Back-Snapper, Body-Breaker, Men, Women, Old, Young, Hundreds, or One!"
The meatiest extra is feature length commentary for Black Dragon by martial filmdom pundit George Tan and (co)star Ron Van Clief. I was worried that with his involvement being so minimal and the film being so bad the commentary would falter, but Van Clief is lightly bemused and does a pretty good job filling the track by talking about his background in martial arts/film stunts as well as jogging his memory to deliver a few decent anecdotes.
Conclusion: Among martial arts action film fans, everybody seems to love Police Story or Master Killer. I don't think I've run across a single soul who said they hated one of those two and far preferred, say, Bruce Li in New Guinea. To me, being a martial film fan who likes z grade fare as well as the classics kinda' makes you eclectic, like the gourmet who doesn't mind a little Chef Boyardee every now and then (most likely when drunk).
Make no mistake, Chinese Hercules and Black Dragon are trash and their merits are barely recyclable. One can just barely find some decent reusable stuff amongst the refuse. Technical merits of this double feature disc is also pretty shoddy, but, hey, it is genre appropriate for BCI's Grindhouse double features, so on that end the duo delivers. And, lets be honest, its cheap.