Return of the 18 Bronzemen: Review

After checking out that Rage of the Dragon movie, I decided to give another Carter Wong movie a chance: Return of the 18 Bronzemen. I think my family had this or the one before it but I didn’t have any interest in watching it until now. The only Carter Wong movies I’m really familiar with to date have been Shaw Brothers’ Marco Polo and, of course, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Apparently, this guy has been around for sometime and it was refreshing to try a non-Shaw Brothers movie for once.

The movie itself is a sequel to 18 Bronzemen. Outside of the name 18 Bronzemen and Carter Wong being part of both, I don’t really see what relationship the sequel had to the original. I think in the original (which I have yet to see), Carter Wong plays one of the heroes. Here, he is both the main villain and protagonist (because he certainly would not be a hero to the viewer’s eyes). He plays a Qing Dynasty prince and plots to take the throne by using one of his associates who forges his name on a scroll that would allow Carter Wong’s character to legally ascend.

Just as the emperor is about to make the edict, he realizes that the name on the scroll is wrong and is about to reveal that Carter Wong most likely had inscribed his name in place of the other prince. Turning to Carter Wong, the emperor is shot through the throat and killed by an unknown assailant which allows the court to witness Carter Wong’s ascension. Immediately, Carter Wong takes charge and locates the assailant, who has planted himself on the ceiling. He’s brought down and thrown in jail but not before he’s forced to admit that the competitor to the throne was the culprit behind this plot. The other prince is then thrown in jail and scheduled to be executed but not before the rest of the court pleads for mercy. In turn, Carter Wong’s character allows for the mercy.

From here on out the movie gets muddy because Carter Wong’s character, despite being royalty, ends up hiding his identity and going to the streets. I don’t know his exact purpose in doing this but eventually he ends up at an inn where he sits to drink tea with his men. There they encounter a rough female kung fu expert that beats up some people who try to harass her. Of course, this is just the director’s way of creating an excuse for a fight. And that leads to her fighting Carter Wong.

More bizarre meandering happens this time along the country side where Carter Wong’s group encounters a bunch of women about to be attacked by some bandits. Once again Carter Wong and company repel this group and he becomes enchanted by the main woman’s beauty. He finds where she’s living and discovers that she has a relative who is practicing kung fu. Thinking that his kung fu is superior to this person’s, Carter Wong tries his might against the brother. However, the guy is from Shaolin, a place that Carter Wong sees as a potential threat. The brother beats Carter Wong, which convinces the emperor to train in Shaolin.

Still disguising his identity, the emperor pretends he’s merely a layman even though he’s accompanied to the Shaolin monastery most of the way. When he tries to convince the abbot that he wants to train at Shaolin, the abbot denies the disguised emperor, for which he stays outside in harsh conditions to demonstrate his earnestness.

Now, if you see parallels between this movie and the Shaw Brothers’ Death Chamber, you’re right. I don’t know how accurate of a depiction this was but there’s many elements from Death Chamber that will appear in some fashion in this movie. These things might be based on myth but they more than likely have been exaggerated over the years.

As you would expect, the dedication the emperor demonstrates convinces the abbot to allow him to enter. From there, he’s given strict rules he must abide by and he goes through rigorous training exercises in preparation for the major test. Starting out, he’s forced to carry loads of water and wood up many stairs. This is just another throwback to the classic Gordon Liu 36 Chambers of Shaolin, minus the focus that director Lau Kar-leung was able to provide around his martial arts films. While there are numerous training sequences here, they don’t have the same impact that 36 Chambers does and it feels like Carter Wong is mostly going through the motions.

Gradually, the emperor gains confidence that he can beat the tests. And while he manages to progress, he eventually fails and meets his match. Set back, he returns to “his brothers”, eats a load of bao and tries to figure out the next steps to give things a try again. Pretty much this happens three more times and we learn that the tests involve monks wearing gold paint and gold lame yoga pants. Supposedly, this paint gives them hard skin so whenever their opponents attack them, they make a metallic clangor.

At any rate, Carter Wong gets to the final challenge, which is to move some sort of urn that has a Buddhist symbol (people will misinterpret this as a Nazi symbol. Cf The Da Vinci Code) that he could imprint. However, his men are at the door as he ordered three years prior and the abbot denies him the honor of completing his test. Discouraged, the emperor takes his leave to return to the throne.

During one of the ceremonies, the emperor is assaulted by the kung fu woman, who says she’s out for revenge since the emperor dishonored her family. They have a fight and she is subdued. At that point, the emperor receives a note about how Shaolin is refusing to cooperate and might be organizing a rebellion. Carter Wong vows to crush those forces and the movie pretty much ends.

If I’m misnaming people or forgetting a key detail or two, there’s a reason. The story itself really isn’t well told, the characters, outside of Carter Wong, aren’t memorable and it’s just one guy going through the motions. The problem I have for this movie is that Carter Wong’s character goes on this voyage that does little except provides him better martial arts. There’s no real personal growth and no pathos involved. Whatever romance subplot that could have existed goes out the door and the brother figure is forgotten except barely as a footnote to give more motivation for Carter Wong to attend Shaolin.

Prior to that though, he had been thinking of crushing Shaolin so for him to train there as well made no sense to me. At one point, it would seem he managed to bond with the other monks as they gained respect for him and vice versa. But he was always a shady character such as when he would use subterfuge to read the secret manuals. It’s really hard to get a good for this guy as his demeanor changes from devious and conniving to goofy and near likeable. Obviously, he wanted to hide his true identity within the temple but his antics almost make no sense in terms of the extremes he put himself through especially in a position of power that he was in.

As for the 18 Bronzemen themselves, I couldn’t even identify 18 as unique characters. They were just generic people wearing the same paint and pants. Maybe there was one fat guy but even he had no name nor any personality. The martial arts that everyone performed was quite subpar and the choreography felt mediocre compared to most Shaw Brothers productions. Maybe the gimmick looked cool but there really wasn’t anything special about it. Even in The Clones of Bruce Lee, the bronzemen used there seemed to have more purpose. I think there’s a reason that if this was shown to me on TV during the 80s, I wouldn’t have remembered it.


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