Want to see Michelle Yeoh as Indiana Jones? The burgeoning Hong Kong film industry of the 80s was eager to riff on Western movies and create their own counterparts. “Magnificent Warriors” is five movies in one, which was pretty common for martial arts films of the era. In only her third starring role, Yeoh wears a leather jacket, fights with a whip, carries a satchel, and Spielbergian visuals are visited throughout the film – although the whip gives way to a rope dart pretty quickly.
If that’s not the best use of a barrel in the history of cinema, I’ll eat the first hat that’s volunteered. “Magnificent Warriors” is filled with uniquely Hong Kong visual gags like this. Yeoh plays pilot and arms runner Fok Ming-Ming, who delivers weapons to Chinese villages seeking to protect themselves from an incoming Japanese invasion.
This places “Magnificent Warriors” during the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, which a non-European view often considers the true beginning of World War 2. Fok is given a mission to contact a Chinese spy and extract Youda, the leader of Kaa Yi, a city in Inner Mongolia. He has vital information that can help the war effort.
Fok will recognize her spy contact by a watch he wears, but the watch itself is intercepted by a clueless gambler who’s a riff on Eli Wallach’s Ugly character from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. See what I mean about five films in one? Misunderstandings ensue, but the ever-increasing team follows through on Youda’s extraction – only to find the Japanese are planning to build a poison gas factory to supply their troops.
“Magnificent Warriors” is a satisfying, cheesy 80s action movie filled with fights and explosions, but if I can break the fun for a moment, this plot point is based in reality. The Japanese invasion of China incorporated chemical and biological weapons, including mustard gas on the front lines, and dropping flea canisters containing bubonic plague on Chinese cities – a dreadful war crime that caused several outbreaks.
This plot point doesn’t villainize the Japanese. It reflects a genocidal reality of that war that informed China’s own cultural and political reactions. That it’s in a Hong Kong movie from 1987 can also be understood to reflect fears of Hong Kong being handed over to China (the handover was negotiated in 1984 and set for 1997, and this reality has dominated much of Hong Kong cinema since the 80s). In other words, Chinese heroes in these films sometimes symbolized Chinese resistance to Japan and sometimes symbolized Hong Kong resistance to China. Often, they did both at once. The film never plays so complicated as all this, but understanding these contexts, and how different audiences see them, helps us recognize the importance of these films as much more than just silly action movies.
You do have to be careful with 80s Hong Kong action cinema. I always grit my teeth a little bit in preparation when sitting down to watch something new. Jackie Chan’s own riffs on Indiana Jones in the “Armour of God” series often included misogynist and racist jokes. (I love the second one for its choreography and physical comedy, but it is deeply problematic.) Thankfully, those jokes and themes aren’t present in “Magnificent Warriors” (or at least the translation I watched), and that’s a relief.
Yeoh’s Fok reminds male characters a few times that she’s their equal and she’s been the one saving them. The worst we get here is other characters recognizing Fok and her spy contact have eyes for each other, and she’s careful to keep track that she saves his life as often as he saves hers. The film never infantilizes Yeoh, pushes her to the side, or fetishizes her heroism (as much of the so-called “Girls with Guns” subgenre did to women heroes to make male audiences feel better). Other characters occasionally question her abilities, and these are treated as opportunities for Fok to embarrass them by pointing out she’s kicked everyone’s asses to that point. Hong Kong action movies were generally more progressive than their Western counterparts of this era, but that’s not saying a whole lot for the 80s. “Magnificent Warriors” isn’t perfect, but it strikes me as standing out in this regard.
There’s aerial combat, spycraft, rooftop chases, fight scenes in raging fire, an extended siege, a surprisingly emotional interlude about resistance to occupation and genocide, and if that’s too heavy, a heaping dose of physical comedy and a fantastic “Who’s on first?”-style sequence about who was right and wrong in a dice game.
The fight choreography is densely packed and frequent, especially considering this was just Yeoh’s third starring role after “Yes, Madam!” and “Royal Warriors”. The stunt work is absolutely incredible.
“Magnificent Warriors” is overstuffed and doesn’t all come together in the same way that 80s action movies are almost always overstuffed and don’t all come together. That’s part of its joy. What’s practical is sometimes sacrificed for what’s awesome. How did that jeep suddenly ramp up and take a flying leap? Because it’s awesome. Where did that explosion come from? It’s an 80s movie, the better question is where did that lack of explosion come from? When did Michelle Yeoh find that motorcycle she’s using to lance dudes? Because it’s more awesome than her not finding a motorcycle to not lance dudes.
Once you can accept that and get into its vibe, “Magnificent Warriors” is an immensely fun watch. You can tell why Yeoh was on her way to becoming a movie star. Even if she would take a 5-year break one film later, she never left the top of her game, and has somehow only gotten better and more prolific.
There are a few options to watch “Magnificent Warriors”. You can rent the subtitled version from Amazon for $3, or watch the dubbed version on Roku or Crackle with ads. The trailer below is for the remastered Blu-ray from Eureka! which restores a number of martial arts films and has done incredible work in film preservation.
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