Completely, deliciously, crazy. M-G-M's Limited Edition Collection of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) cult and little-seen titles has released Golden Needles, the 1974 chop socky opus released by American International, directed by none other than Enter the Dragon's Robert Clouse, and starring human cement mixer Joe Don Baker, Elizabeth Ashley, Ann Southern, Jim Kelly, and Burgess Meredith. That particular cast, starring in that particular genre of movie, should be enough right there to get your fingers flying over the keyboard to order this...this bizarre film. A genuine curiosity, in a fairly good transfer...but no extras.
Hong Kong, 1974. Los Angeles southern belle Felicity (Elizabeth Ashley) has a contract to fulfill: her employer has instructed her to purchase, for $100,000 dollars, a Sung Dynasty statue. Why is the statue worth that many dumplings? Apparently, the statue is a guide for seven acupuncture points―the Golden Needles of Ecstasy―that, if placed correctly on a man will bring him unending sexual pleasure and it's implied, immortality. If placed incorrectly: hideous death. Hong Kong gangster and rather odd body painter Lin Toa (Roy Chiao) has successfully stolen the statue, and now wants Felicity to pony up $250,000 dollars. A good Ohio girl with a solid Midwestern upbringing, Felicity cries foul and runs to old friend Kwan (Tony Lee), asking for help. Kwan suggests his former partner, Dan (Joe Don Baker), a large, unkempt, sweaty American soldier-of-fortune/detective/adventurer/antiques dealer/booze hound/pre-diabetic, steal it back―a deal he only agrees to for Kwan's friendship and for the chance to nail Felicity, who pragmatically offers up her ass to seal the deal. The bestial bruin Dan, surely the least fleet-of-foot martial artist in Hong Kong, manages to heist the statue back, deliver it to Kwan who will ship it back to L.A., and bang Felicity before she disappears with his dough and Kwan buys the farm at the hands of Lin Toa. Now it's up to Dan to return to L.A., hook up with his friend, antiques dealer (!) Jeff (Jim Kelly) and Chinese detective Su Lin (the paralyzingly good-looking Frances Fong), track down the statue, and return it to Felicity before crazy-as-a-bedbug millionaire Winters (Burgess Meredith) gets it first.
If you don't look too closely at the plot of Golden Needles, you can have a lot of fun with it by just grooving along with its incomprehensible but somehow delicious mishmash of oddly-timed fight scenes, weirdly-scripted dialogue scenes, head-scratching casting, the kick-ass score by master Lalo Schifrin, and the socko cinematography in and around Hong Kong. If you do start questioning Golden Needles, you're going to wind up asking yourself a whole lot of things, like who the hell, exactly, is Joe Don Baker here? An ex-spy? An ex-soldier? An ex-gambler? An ex-meat packer or ex-bus driver or ex-pro bowler or all the other occupations that Baker looks so eminently suited for? How about the statue itself? Are the actual golden needles important for the "live and let dong" procedure, or is it the statue itself? And does it give you a permanent ViagraŽ high, or immortality? How about this: how the hell did Jim Kelly become an antiques dealer? And why is Elizabeth Ashley "in bed" with Burgess Meredith? All that sounds kind of important, kind of on the level of, "I don't really get this picture if I don't understand at least a few of those questions."
But then...director Clouse (hot off his career peak with Enter the Dragon, working off S. Lee Pogostin (Hard Road to China, Hard Contract) and Sylvia Schneble's script, doesn't appear to care if you get it or not, because he's charging straight through the story the way Joe Don Baker charges through that plate glass window when he can't figure out any other way of beating up his assailants or escaping the, um...snakes that are all over the floor (inspired hilarity, this scene). I suppose one could blame the editing for the almost aggressively impenetrable continuity here (to be polite, let's just say it was the studio and not future Spielberg editor Michael Kahn), but I have a feeling that Golden Needles never made any sense, right from the beginning to anyone, including famed exploitation producer Fred Weintraub (Enter the Dragon, Black Belt Jones, Truck Turner, The Ultimate Warrior). With all the studios scrambling to recreate the monster worldwide success of Enter the Dragon, what better way to ride the chop socky craze than gather together the producer and director of the film that started it all and get some product, any product, out there.
But then...who the hell brought up Joe Don Baker's name? Don't get me wrong: Baker is beloved in my movie memories, if only for Walking Tall, but for so many more great titles like Framed and Mitchell and Charley Varrick and The Outfit and Checkered Flag or Crash. In 1974, he was probably the hottest actor on the slowly dying drive-in circuit, so it made sense, at least monetarily, to get him in on the kung fu craze. However, did anyone look at him? He looks like an unmade California King-sized bed, not a lithe martial artist. No one else wanted this film? To his credit, though, and to the credit of this crazy movie, he pulls it off in an almost nonsensical way, daring, with just his size and brawn, for anyone to take a swipe at him so he can jump up and down and stomp them to death like a linebacker Nero.
What struck me the most about Golden Needles was its arbitrary kookiness. One minute a crippled man gets the Needles of Ecstasy and starts flexing his fingers (what did you think I was going to write?), and the next thing you know, thieves kill him and all the women in his mansion, but not with guns―with flame throwers, for Christ's sake (they're even wearing silver fire suits). What the hell is that about? Why flame throwers? I'll tell you why: because it's f*cking cool, that's why. Why is gangster Lin Toa painting that nude guy in his office? And why does he "threaten" Elizabeth Ashley by painting her throat (her rumbly, whiskey voice absolutely paralyzes me)? I don't know, but it's memorable and weird. Or how about the "meet cute" scene between Baker and Ashley, where he sweetly/ominously talks about his mommy hugging him and loving him, before he asks her if she's told someone lately she loved them? And then he makes her say it right until he approves, with Ashley fighting back the urge to laugh before he slaps her on the ass? It sounds rather dumb, written out, but Baker and Ashley make it oddly...touching, in a weird-assed way, and also at the same time, hilarious and almost scary (their love scene, thank god, is PG-rated, although I hit the floor when she said he's "really beautiful" naked, but their food orgy scene is gross). Why do the fight scenes "work" when they're fairly tame and not particularly well-staged? I don't know, but there's something in the editing, and the music, and the surreal sight of Baker pummeling his foes with two ham-hocks for hands, his sweaty hair flying, that works, culminating in a flat-out terrific final foot chase through the tiny streets of Hong Kong (did Frankenheimer watch this just prior to French Connection II?) where Baker, barely able to squeeze his shoulders inbetween the buildings, runs like O.J. up impossibly steep steps without huffing and puffing, before throwing his fifth straight guy through a plate glass window. I honestly don't know why all of this comes together into a package that satisfies. It's all incongruous, and incomprehensible, and ill-timed, and herky-jerky, and often inscrutable. But it works because it's completely fearless at being all of those things. And sometimes, guts is enough.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.