Iron Angels (1987)

Do you hate international heroin-trafficking operations, leather couches, and the 1986 Nissan Stanza sedan? If so, the 1987 Hong Kong action film IRON ANGELS, directed by Teresa Woo, might be up your alley – all three of the aforementioned items are eviscerated during the course of this film.

After the local authorities in Thailand target an opium processing operation in the countryside and torch their poppy fields, the Golden Triangle supply line for a heroin-trafficking gang based in Hong Kong is shattered, and their main source of income is screwed. Madame Yeung (Yukari Oshima) takes charge of the situation from her passive older brother (Chun Yang) and reluctantly works with internal rival, Chang Lung (Hwang Jang Lee) to restore confidence in the ranks and keep the illicit cash flowing. Hiding their various misdeeds behind a front company called Dai Nippon Corporation, the gang kills snitches in the streets and on playgrounds, and kidnaps INTERPOL agents to torture them for information. No crime is too awful, no daytime killing too brazen.

Fortunately, the gang is firmly on the radar of the wealthy Keung (David Chiang), a mover-and-shaker who also covertly runs the Angels Organization, a small but elite squad of spies-for-hire who specialize in assaulting and disrupting crime networks in every conceivable manner– from computer hacking and hidden surveillance to armed assaults and flying kicks. Moon (Moon Lee) is a skilled office worker by day and fighting super-sleuth by night. Elaine (Elaine Lui) is an expert thief who loves the nightlife, and Saijo (Hideki Saijo) is a martial arts master from Japan with a taste for danger. Joining the Angels is Alex (Alex Fong), an American agent sent to Hong Kong with Uncle Sam’s money to hire the Angels for the difficult job ahead; not so secretly, he also longs to become a full-time member of their crew. Their mission is simple: rescue any surviving kidnapped INTERPOL agents, take out Madame Yeung’s gang, and avoid dying in the process.

Also known simply as ANGEL when it was originally released in Hong Kong and FIGHTING MADAM in the United States home video market, this was the third film directed by Teresa Woo and it spawned two sequels in 1988 and 1989, respectively (both were also directed or co-directed by Woo). In leveraging a talented and capable cast of action performers, and terrific stunt and action choreography from pros like Siu-Hung Leung (IN THE LINE OF DUTY III, TWIN DRAGONS), Joseph Chi (CITY ON FIRE), and Kai-Ming Lai (ROYAL WARRIORS), Woo delivers an energetic work of Hong Kong cinema to the final frame. Not long after the last IRON ANGELS sequel, Woo attempted to make a mark in the American film industry. She produced and co-wrote the screenplay for the kickboxing students vs. racist jerks action b-movie, COLLEGE KICKBOXERS, and also co-produced and edited a version of the 1990 science-fiction comedy, KAMILLIONS. One can only speculate over the potential reasons, but Woo walked away from filmmaking altogether after these experiences abroad.

How much you enjoy a film of this type and vintage is going to depend in large part on how you feel about the valleys in between the peaks of action spectacle, because as good as the action gets, this is not quite a breathless thrill-ride the whole way through. The different story elements that Woo tries to juggle – the Angels’ investigation and disruption of the crime gang, the burgeoning romances between agents, the increasingly sadistic behavior from a crime leader losing grip on the situation, an underling trying to go over in grand fashion, and a plucky outsider who wants to sit at the Angels’ cool kids table – are all admirable at a glance, but in execution, it all feels a bit disjointed.

In the film’s quieter sequences where the Angels are collectively trying to puzzle something out or brainstorm a plan, there’s still some stylish point of interest in the frame – e.g., big hair, flashy ’80s fashion, gaudy hide-out decor, or novel gadgetry. As a professed sucker for these things, I still recognize they won’t score points with every viewer … but I’ll mention a sampling anyways. In the world of the Angels, mobile phones are the size of a human head. Fashion accessories like necklaces and bracelets can cut like a blade or shoot scalding acid. Information transfer occurs on paper via dot matrix printer through some ambiguous communication channel but always in just the nick of time, and there’s no shortage of nondescript tracking devices small enough to stay hidden from the target of surveillance, but large enough to photograph well on camera.

Perhaps nobody in IRON ANGELS is having as much fun as Yukari Oshima as the evil cartel leader, Madame Yeung. During a torture scene, she abandons her plate of chips, ketchup, and what looks like an empty hot dog roll (?!) to lick blood off one of the hapless victims. Locals scramble into the shadows at the mere mention of her name. She laughs hysterically at the misery of others, turns every boardroom meeting into an occasion for a potential beat-down, and responds to bad news with kicks and death threats. To show off her grit (or arrogance), she invites not just one, but two different martial arts fights against multiple foes at the same time, and her climactic fight with two of the Angels towards the end of the film is a total slug-fest that, through the sheer force of its brutality alone, makes this film worth watching.

While there were plenty of Hong Kong “girls-with-guns” films in the wake of the successful YES, MADAM, too few of them featured a woman director at the helm. Teresa Woo shows herself capable as any director from the time period at orchestrating an enjoyable, stylish, and over-the-top action movie romp.  

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