Color, 1977, 102m.
Directed by Po-Chih Leong
Starring Henry Silva, Vonetta McGee, RIk Van Nutter, Roy Chiao, James Yi Lui
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
You won't find a '70s Hong Kong action project much crazier than Foxbat, a.k.a. Operation Foxbat, which tosses in a number of international faces and a hip score by Roy "Get Carter" Budd to juice up a tale of espionage and betrayal. Some ratty stock footage and a helter skelter set up make for a rocky start, but once it kicks into gear this turns out to be a fun, twisty, high octane film with some impressive shootouts and fight scenes.
The "Foxbat" of the title refers to a (real) MiG-25 Soviet supersonic military jet, which has landed in Japan after a malfunction during a test run. As it turns out, the Russian pilot intends to defect with the Japanese government and press scrambling to keep everything under control. Stoic, habitually coughing undercover American spy Mike Saxon (Silva) has to hop out of bed with a local lovely to jump into action, which means his boss at the C.I.A. (Thunderball's Van Nutter) wants him to get the plans for the plane out of the country. After stopping an assassination, Saxon has to navigate the murky waters between the Americans, Russian, and Japanese as he uses his artificial eye (which has a camera planted inside it) to abscond with blueprints for the jet and take off to Hong Kong (after being attacked by a sumo wrestler and killing him with a toothbrush!). From there he tangles with more colorful characters like New York fashion designer Toni (McGee), local agent, Cheung (kung fu vet Lui), and the nefarious Doctor Vod (The Game of Death's Chiao, who will also be familiar to Indiana Jones fans), who has an arsenal of assassins at his disposal.
It's always a treat to see Silva in action leading man form, which he has down to perfection here after a few years starring in Italian crime classics like Almost Human, Kidnap, Manhunt, and Weapons of Death. His world weary demeanor is especially effective here, and he's well matched by the gorgeous McGee, fresh off her turn (as the unforgettably named Jemima Brown) in The Eiger Sanction. For some reason there wasn't enough here to merit a theatrical release in America, however, where it went straight to TV instead. That's too bad as that meant some of the more brutal moments in the second half had to be toned down, including a spectacular climactic dummy death and more than a few bloody gunshots. Even so, it's an eccentric little treat with some crazy moments of surreal comedy and a wildly ambitious international canvas for its numerous action scenes.
Video copies of Foxbat were ridiculously hard to come by ever since, with a Japanese VHS release and a bootleg DVD fetching stupid amounts of money through various third party sellers. Luckily you can ignore those thanks to the 2014 DVD from Code Red, directly sold through the label and Diabolik, which features a new, drastically improved transfer from an original 35mm IP. Some of the more ragged shots still look a little rough, obviously, but 99% of it is in fine shape with no significant issues. Surprisingly, this disc actually qualifies as a special edition courtesy of an overseas VHS (Golden Lion) trailer, five minutes of extraneous additional footage included on the 107-minute Japanese VHS (including an irate kitty and a longer garage showdown), and an audio commentary with director Po-Chih Leong, who made his English-language debut with this film and went on to the surreal vampire offering The Wisdom of Crocodiles with Jude Law. It's mostly technical as he points out the various shooting locations (with some opening plane shots done in Wales!) and discusses the actual events that inspired the story involving the defection of Soviet pilot Lt. Viktor Belenko. Accompanied by moderator Bill Olsen from Code Red, he also explains how and why they had to smuggle cameras in to shoot some sumo wrestlers and briefly explains how director Terence Young contributed a few lines of dialogue, which has confusingly resulted in Young being listed as a co-director on the film ever since. In a shocking turn of events, the Code Red DVD kicks off with a trailer for Family Honor before the main feature and also features bonus previews for Zebra Force (yes!), Top of the Heap, This Is a Hijack!, Death Promise, and Force Four.
Reviewed on April 6, 2014.