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The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer, Tsai Chin, Horst Frank, Maria Rohm, Wolfgang Kieling

Written By: Harry Alan Towers, Sax Rohmer (characters) Directed By: Jeremy Summers

The Short Version

Christopher Lee is back for his third turn as the most legendary Chinese villain ever.

Save the pacing, the best way to describe everything about this movie is “lazy.”

For a moment, there’s potential; then all of the characters turn into idiots.

It’s made just well enough to pass as “in one eyeball and out there other” fare, but…

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is a poster child for the low end of low mediocrity.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MICROWAVE MAC & CHEESE.

The lazy man’s dinner.  It’s edible, but...

.


Pairs Well With...

MILLER LITE.

For when you’re too lazy to think about what you’re ordering.

“I thought we’d agreed never to mention that name again.”


The character of Fu Manchu is one of the most problematic of the adventure genre.  As a sketch, he’s fascinating: the very prototype for the megalomaniacal supervillain.  In practice, though, whether in pulp literature or on film, he tends to come up short.  Case in point: The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee’s third headline turn in producer Harry Alan Towers’ series of features based on the legendary character.

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is a poster child for the low end of low mediocrity.  Its lazy script has more holes in it than a cheese grater.  Subplots apparently designed to prop up certain careers make an already sketchy train of logic come even closer to riding off the rails.  Nearly every character in the film – including the allegedly shrewd Fu Manchu – comes across as an idiot.  The performances are uninspired at best, generally languid, and further muddled for at least half the cast by awful and obvious dubbing.  The direction is competent but pedestrian.  And yet, there’s always a glint of potential, and that is both the film’s final damnation and ultimate saving grace.  From start to finish, the film is haunted by an atmosphere of “this should have been so much better,” but it’s just good enough to be watchable instead of irredeemably lousy.  Still bad, still disappointing, but on the right rainy or snowy day…

It really comes down to a potential viewer’s devotion to the cheesy side of cinema, and perhaps for some a determination to experience anything and everything ever to star the great Christopher Lee.

The first few sequences of The Vengeance of Fu Manchu are standard enough fare.  We begin with a scene wherein Fu Manchu and his daughter hold court in his ancestral home in rural China, the point of which is mainly to demonstrate that father and daughter are both indeed ruthlessly evil as they hand down and carry out death sentences.  (This scene also, alas, foretells the sketchy quality of the effects, starting with The World’s Most Unconvincing Beheading.)  Next, the audience is introduced to the hero, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Nayland Smith, who goes out of his way to mention – as he always does at the start of these things – that he is thoroughly convinced that his old archnemesis Fu Manchu is dead, after which he looks at the clock and realizes that it’s time to head off to Paris to go co-found this newfangled multinational police force called Interpol.  (That, by the way, is one of the glimmers of alas unrealized potential I was mentioning earlier.)  Following this, we’re back to Fu Manchu, whose evil scheme of the moment begins the exact same way that his schemes did in the two previous films: kidnapping a brilliant man and his daughter.  (Did I mention that this story is lazy?)  And from there…

From there it just keeps going downhill at a thankfully brisk pace.

While Smith is off to co-found Interpol, the various criminal organizations of the world have decided to band together themselves (why no, the word SPECTRE never comes up), and they want none other than Fu Manchu to be their supreme leader.  He is, of course, happy to accept, and for his first major strike against the forces of justice and democracy, he absolutely does not steal a nuclear weapon and blackmail the world, nor does he mess with anyone’s space program.  No, his great scheme is to discredit the most prominent police chiefs in the world by framing them all for murder, and his first target shall be none other than his old enemy, Chief Inspector Nayland Smith!

Sound underwhelming?  Just wait; it gets funkier.  It turns out that the fellow Fu Manchu kidnapped near the start of our program also happens to be the world’s most accomplished plastic surgeon, and the our villain means to force this surgeon to create physical lookalikes of his enemies – starting with Smith – and it is through those lookalikes that the fiend shall go about his campaign of besmirchment!

Do yourself a favor and try not to think too hard about that.  Also try not to question that this surgeon can make a short Asian dude look exactly like the noticeably taller and definitely non-Asian Nayland Smith in the space of 48 hours.  Nor should you ask why, after a successful switch is made, Fu Manchu would bother to bring his most allegedly capable adversary straight to the heart of his operations instead of just killing him straight off and being done with it.  No; you definitely don’t want to ask that.

Nor do you want to ask why the supposed head of the American organized crime syndicate is being played by a badly dubbed German actor; the fact that he is always wearing a cowboy hat should be enough to satisfy anyone of his true American-ness.  (Was Central Casting fresh out of New York Italians at the time or what?  Oh, sorry; I did just say not to ask, didn’t I?) 

You might be tempted to ask what’s up with the inane subplot involving the American gangster’s quickly-dumped girlfriend, but that, at least, there’s an explanation for.  She’s played by Maria Rohm, the producer’s wife, so whether or not her presence contributes anything to the story, there’s going to be screen time.  And two pointless musical numbers.  (Lip synced, of course.)  With that said, one shouldn’t be too quick to rush to judgment here; after all, Rohm does put in one of the better and more enthusiastic performances of the film, joined by the other two leading ladies, Tsai Chin and Suzanne Roquette.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re all phoning it in, including Christopher Lee, who brings no menace at all to the role of Fu Manchu this time around, and who looks very much like he’s only still wearing the funky mustache for the sake of a paycheque.  Not that I blame him or anyone else here, mind.  The lazy storyline has the primary characters blundering from one plot point to the next without making a single credible decision along the way, and just about everyone below the top line ends up being dubbed over.  Motivation?  What’s that?

It’s something that happens on other movie sets; that’s what it is.

And yet, despite all of the laziness, despite all of the senselessness, and despite the abject look of surrender on the faces of so many cast members, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu manages to stay just on the right side of watchable for the dedicated cheesy movie fan.  The awful screenplay just begs to be lampooned with friends (or possibly made into a drinking game catalyst), or, for those looking for a more passive experience, the movie manages to go in one eyeball and out the other quite nicely and without inducing any real headaches for those whose brains are kept solidly in “neutral” throughout.  There are indeed plenty of worse ways to spend an hour and half’s worth of rainy or snowy day.

Bonus trivia for James Bond fans.  If a lot of voices in this movie sound familiar to you, it’s because literally half of the male characters in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu are dubbed by Robert Rietty, who did the same job for Eon Productions, most notably as the dubbed voice of Largo in Thunderball.  Meanwhile, in the same year that this film was released, Tsai Chin (who plays Fun Manchu’s daughter, Lin Tang) would also appear in You Only Live Twice, and nearly forty years later, she’d also find a seat at the final table in Casino Royale.

Bottom line, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is just about as lazy and underwhelming as it gets.  For the casual movie watcher, it’s easy to skip, but if you’re really that curious… well, you know what you’re getting into.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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