Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Return of the Bionic Boy

Director: Bobby A Suarez
Writers: Ken Metcalfe, Joe Zucchero
Producer: Bobby A Suarez
Cast: Marrie Lee, Master Johnson Yap, Joe Zucchero
Country: Philippines
Year of release: 1978
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Herewith a short history of bionics. The word was invented by Jack E Steel, a medical doctor and former US Air Force Colonel in 1958. It was given literary credibility by Martin Caidin in his 1972 novel Cyborg which was adapted the following year into a TV movie - The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors as US Air Force Colonel Steve Austin.

The telemovie was a big hit, pushed the term ‘bionic’ into the public consciousness and was followed (I didn’t know this - thanks Wikipedia!) by two more Movies of the Week about Steve Austin: Wine, Women and War and Solid Gold Kidnapping.

A weekly TV series of The Six Million Dollar Man started in January 1974 and ran for four years, totalling 100 episodes. The show was a massive hit, in those pre- and post-Star Wars days and it was inevitable that a distaff spin-off would be produced. The character of tennis player Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) was introduced in the second season of The Six Million Dollar Man in March 1975, returned at the start of season three and then The Bionic Woman ran simultaneously for three seasons, including a couple of two-part stories which stretched across both shows. This series, like its progenitor, was produced by Kenneth Johnson. Three reunion TV-movies followed in 1987, 1989 and as recently as 1994.

In November 1976, a possible third series was considered, aimed at a younger audience, and was trialled as a double-length episode of The Six Million Dollar Man called ‘The Bionic Boy’. But 15-year-old athlete Andy Sheffield (Vincent Van Patten) wasn’t as popular as Jaime Sommers and his spin-off never materialised. Fortunately neither was there any stand-alone televisual future for The Bionic Dog. No, honestly, they introduced a bionic dog.

Until Star Wars appeared, the two Bionic series were the biggest sci-fi hit around, hugely popular across the globe. Everywhere you looked, kids in playgrounds and comedians on TV were running in slow motion or punching each other slowly while making “Pow-ow-ow-ow...!” noises.

This came to the attention of the Philippines' greatest purveyor of popular cinema, Bobbie A Suarez. The first title from BAS Film Productions Inc, set up to produce exploitable action movies dubbed into English for international sale, was therefore The Bionic Boy, starring a nine-year-old (some sources say eight) tae kwon do prodigy named Master Johnson Yap who had been prominently featured in the Singapore press.

In The Bionic Boy, Yap played the son of an Interpol agent who took on a bunch of international gangsters in revenge for the death of his parents. The film was the last known work of director Leody M Diaz, who passed away after wrapping production but before the movie was released. Diaz also helmed the semi-mythical Filipino epic Batman Fights Dracula and worked as action director on several of the popular Darna series of superheroine pictures. The screenplay was written by Romeo N Galang from a story by Suarez; Galang also wrote and directed an even more mythical film, 1973’s Fight Batman Fight! To the best of my knowledge no-one has ever actually seen either Batman movie although vintage newspaper ads confirm their existence. If a copy of either ever surfaced, it would be a major find. Until then, we must content ourselves with that old VHS of James Batman.

The Bionic Boy is generally dated to 1977 which would put it after the TV episode of the same name, but it might well have been in production before then. And of course, it’s an obvious spin to take on the concept (curiously no-one seems to have ever considered a bionic girl...). Certainly the publicity made no bones about the movie’s inspiration:

“FIRST - it was The Six Million Dollar Man. THEN CAME - The Bionic Woman. NOW COMES - the ultimate in action thrills and suspense with Asia’s youngest master of martial arts.”

Combining the fad for bionic stuff with the 1970s vogue for chop-socky pictures was a smart move by Suarez and the film sold well. It was released in Pakistan (“He is more than a warrior... more than a super hero... he is the fighting fury of World War III.”) and Mexico (“Despues de El HOMBRE NUCLEAR y LA MUJER BIONICA, una nueva dimesion de aventuras y accion con un poderoso e indestructible personaje que le hara estremecer!!!”) and probably a bunch of other places. But not, so far as I can tell, the United States.

Suarez and Galang than reteamed for They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong starring the one and only Miss Marrie Lee. And when that was also a success, the obvious next step was to combine the two franchises. The result was Dynamite Johnson - and that’s the film we’re discussing here.

Mightier and Stronger than KINGKONG (sic)...
Faster the the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN...
Deadlier than the BIONIC WOMAN...
More powerful than the SUPER-SONIC JET FIGHTER and ATOMIC BATTLESHIP combined!!!

...ballyhooed the poster, which reused part of the artwork from the first film and subtitled the movie, in very small print ‘Bionic Boy (Part II)’. And that small print is what I find odd about all this because there is no other attempt in the publicity to link this to either of BAS Film Productions’ previous movies. Marrie Lee (‘Singapore’s handgun and martial arts expert’) is prominently featured but there is no mention of ‘Cleopatra Wong’ on the poster. And she is definitely playing the same character - a sexy, powerful chick composed in equal parts of legs, eye-shadow and attitude. Yap’s character calls her ‘Auntie Cleo’ and other characters refer to her specifically as ‘Cleopatra Wong’.

So why was the word ‘bionic’ so prominent in publicity for the first film but so hidden in the second? It could be that Suarez had got wind of legal arguments in the USA where some enterprising soul had decided to release the three-year-old Japanese monster flick Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla as Godzilla vs the Bionic Monster. Universal Studios, which made The Six Million Dollar Man, made loud, threatening noises and the posters were quickly amended to read Godzilla vs the Cosmic Monster.

Which makes it all the more bizarre that, while one film was losing the word ‘bionic’ from its title, this one was adding it in. Dynamite Johnson became The Return of the Bionic Boy, with the title rather obviously added as a still frame, interrupting the credit sequence of Master Johnson Yap doing his tae kwon do schtick.

Before the credits is a sequence of American mercenaries attacking some sort of industrial establishment who are interrupted by a robotic dragon. It’s a vehicle, togged up like a silver dragon, with a flame-thrower in its mouth and a machine gun in its tail. It’s goofy as all get-off but it’s an impressive, full-size, fully-functioning prop and the only thing that really lets the side down is that we have all seen Dr No at least seven times.

Master Johnson Yap plays a boy named ‘Sunny’ - presumably his surname is ‘Johnson’ - who arrives, in a wheelchair, in the Philippines from Singapore for surgery on his broken legs. For some reason, this surgery not only restores his ability to walk, it also greatly enhances his ability to do flying leaps and spin-kicks. And it raises his sight and hearing to superhuman levels too.

That’s surgery on his legs, folks.

Furthermore, no-one ever comments - not the good guys, not the bad guys - on Sunny’s amazing fighting ability.

Not having seen The Bionic Boy, I can’t say whether this film ties in to that at all but it seems unlikely that there is any narrative connection because Sunny isn’t actually bionic at the start of the film in which he ‘returns’. While recovering in hospital, his bionic ears overhear some bad guys talking in another room so he goes to investigate but when he tells the doctor and Auntie Cleo, no-one believes that he could have heard anything.

So he discharges himself from hospital (or sneaks out - I’m not sure) and tracks down some bad guys exchanging stuff at the docks. “Hey, what’s that kid doing here? Beat it!” says one, whereupon Sunny proceeds to defeat a whole bunch of chop-socky goons from both criminal gangs.

This sequence also introduces us to the least subtle, most stereotyped homosexual film character in cinematic history. Introduced here as the bad guy’s driver but later apparently some sort of second-in-command, this dark-skinned, skinny fellow wears an outfit that looks like one of Liberace’s cast-offs wrapped round a broomstick. He doesn’t just camp it up, he flounces, he pouts, he squeals like a little girl. In fact, he behaves in general like a little girl. It’s like the actor’s idea of homosexuality is ‘grown men who act like four-year-old girls’. On uppers.

He’s actually pretty funny - one of the film’s highlights - because he is so massively over-the-top he’s round the bend and back underneath. Comic relief that is, in its own way, actually comic, just not in any way that was intended. Honestly, next time you see an old clip of Are You Being Served you’ll think, ‘My word, that John Inman is essaying a sensitive and considered portrayal of a gay man.’ By comparison, at least.

Truth be told, after this it all gets a bit less interesting and, remarkably, Dynamite Johnson aka the Bionic Boy disappears from his own film for most of the running time as Cleopatra Wong takes centre stage. It’s some sort of smuggling operation of course, plutonium or something, I think. One thing is for sure: unlike the last Bobby Suarez/Marrie Lee film I saw, there’s no strawberry jam involved here.

Master Johnson Yap does get a sequence where he plays basketball with some kids, amazing them with his bionic b-ball skills before kicking the arses of some more chop-socky goons. There’s no doubt that the lad knows his moves and while he’s not outstandingly impressive, he’s not embarrassingly bad either. The last half-hour or so is, once again, a massive extended fight sequence, with our main characters joined by a couple of young blokes in black pullovers - don’t know who they are. The robot dragon reappears briefly. Finally, all the bad guys are beaten and our heroes fly off in an unexplained helicopter which comes to collect them.

One of the film’s problems is that it’s never sure whether it’s the Bionic Boy or Cleopatra Wong who is doing the returning. Although they do have some character scenes together, the movie seems to flip between the two for extended periods. But there is plenty of fighting, a reasonably coherent (if somewhat skimpy) plot, a great robot-dragon-machine and the campest fruit west of the Pacific.

The Return of the Bionic Boy finally made it to the UK in November 1986 courtesy of Cable 2 Video with a sleeve which assured any potential renters that this was ‘The First Bionic Boy’ and Marrie Lee’s name spelled wrong. The back of the sleeve, which features a staggeringly bad drawing of Master Johnson Yap, credits the director as ‘Bobby A Stuart’ although Suarez receives the correct credit on screen. It’s also worth reproducing the marvellous sleeve blurb from the UK release:

Fast, exciting Martial arts action with a pint-sized warrior. Almost a satire of the Bruce Lee classics with a touch of ‘BMX Bandits’ thrown in. A half-pint warrior with the added aid of bionics and an equally lethal aunt as his constant companion/guardian clean up around them.

Martial arts enthusiasts become unpopular when they cause havoc in the street, but become heroes when they capture criminals.

Lively action movie with unacceptable behaviour from a half-computerised boy followed by reformation and an old-fashioned moral for young teenagers.

Which is stretching things a bit because really it’s an hour and a half of a little lad and a hot chick kicking the arses of production line martial arts goons. An interesting aspect is that Johnson’s ‘bionics’ are never commented upon (and certainly never shown). It’s really just an excuse to have the youngster beat grown-ups at kung fu. In that sense, it’s no different from the 1990s movies that would cast Billy Blanks or Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson or whoever as a cyborg just so that the hero could justify being so much better than the anonymous stuntmen who queue up to jump away from him.

In fact, now I come to think of it., the hero of this film is actually a cyborg. It’s easy to miss that because cinematically, in a post-Terminator world, ‘cyborg’ is usually taken as a synonym for ‘robot’ or ‘android’, cheapjack film-makers failing to notice that Arnie had a layer of human skin and flesh covering his metal skeleton, rendering him a cybernetic organism. But Dynamite Johnson really is half-human, half-robot, yer actual cyborg (as indeed was Steve Austin of course).

All of which means that, unless someone can demonstrate evidence to the contrary, The Return of the Bionic Boy is officially the first ever KCM.

The screenplay is credited to Ken Metcalfe and Joe Zucchero who also play two of the lead roles, though I’m not sure who. Apart from master Yap and Miss Lee, I can’t actually identify any of the actors with their characters. No matter. The UK sleeve calls Metcalfe ‘Ken’ as writer but ‘Ron’ as actor. The two also wrote Bamboo Gods and Iron Men together. Metcalfe contributed to the script of the Roger Corman-produced TNT Jackson, a Cirio Santiago blaxploitationer which clearly inspired the title Dynamite Johnson - and which was allegedly released as Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson in the Philippines. It’s easy to see how audiences might confuse that film’s Jeannie Bell with Pam Grier, both being about seven feet tall with a giant afro. In Dynamite Johnson, Marrie Lee also sports a Foxy Brown style wig and costume for one sequence but she would be harder to confuse with Grier, what with not actually being black and everything.

Ken ‘Ron’ Metcalfe’s other writing credits include Firecracker and Hell Hole for Santiago and American Commandoes and Warriors of the Apocalypse for Suarez. As an actor, he appeared in about 50 films between the late 1960s and the late 1990s including The Beast of the Yellow Night and Enter the Ninja. A sideline in casting local talent as extras got him credits on Hamburger Hill and Born on the Fourth of July!

Joe Zucchero wrote Final Mission, The Devastator and Eye of the Eagle for Ciro and Devil’s Angels for Bobby. As an actor he has about 30 credits, mostly (like Metcalfe) for the prolific Santiago. His sideline was in editing including both versions of Ciro Santiago’s boy-and-his-pteranodon classic, Vulcan and Anak ng Bulkan. (The Inaccurate Movie Database credits the script to Suarez and Romeo N Galang which is nonsense, although Suarez does take story credit.)

The cinematographer was Eduardo ‘Baby’ Cabrales whose CV includes Cleopatra Wong and the sixth entry in the long-running Shake Rattle and Roll Filipino horror anthology series. ‘Associate director’(?) Pepito Diaz worked on Delta Force 2, American Ninja and William Mesa’s enjoyable late-1990s monster flick DNA. Gene S Suarez was executive producer. The cast has some big-name (or at least, prolific) Filipino actors including Chito Guerrera (Fight Batman Fight, 7 Crazy Dragons), Joe Sison and Manny Tibayan.

Special effects are credited to Benny Macabale (One-Armed Executioner) with Margie Catro handling make-up and Nita Bayed as ‘costume caretaker’. Other credited crew include Isabelo Tatos (setting in-charge), Rolly Banta (special props), David Cheung (film editor), Bonnie Esquerra (production supervisor) and Willie Henson and Rolly Mercado (schedule masters). Alex Pecate is credited as both actor and stunt co-ordinator but the highlight of the credits, indeed of the opening titles, must surely be ‘P.I.S.S.’. This probably stands for Philippines International Stunt Squad or something but, dudes, it doesn’t matter what that stands for. Change your name!

Now comes the sad part. I had owned this VHS tape for quite a few years and planned to rewatch it (one of the few tapes I still own) in order to put a review on this site to complement my review of They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (which you will find under its UK video title of Female Big Boss). In December 2007, after I had posted that Cleopatra Wong review, Bobby Suarez himself became aware of it and sent me a very nice e-mail, telling me about all his plans to return to film-making.

Even though I don't do many interviews any more, I really wanted to interview Bobby Suarez. But not until I had rewatched The Return of the Bionic Boy. And that wasn’t going to happen until after I moved house because everything - DVDs, CDs, magazine, books and my handful of remaining video tapes - was packed up.

Well, we moved in December 2009 and in June 2010 I finally got round to putting The Return of the Bionic Boy into my surviving VHS machine. Both tape and player still worked fine and the movie was as gloriously bonkers as I remembered it. I set to writing this review.

And that was when I discovered that Bobby Suarez had died on 8th February 2010, aged 67. And that depressed me, not just because he joined Cirio Santiago on the list of Filipino directors I really wish I had interviewed, not just because the handful of e-mails I had exchanged with him showed Bobby to be an intelligent, friendly man, but also because nobody seemed to have noticed his death. It was listed on Wikipedia and the IMDB but I certainly didn’t see any discussion on any of the film boards where I occasionally chat or lurk.

So Bobby will never see this review. But his work lives on and maybe somebody will give his films a really good DVD release. In the meantime, I’ve posted, in lieu of the interview that I'll never get, that original e-mail which so delighted me when it appeared out of the blue on Boxing Day three years ago.

Rest in peace, Bobby.

MJS rating: B+

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