You could be forgiven for expecting Five Golden Dragons to be a knock-off of the 1960s Fu Manchu series, given the title, the Hong Kong setting and the involvement of Fu producer Harry Alan Towers, director Jeremy Summers and star Christopher Lee. In fact, this is a very different kettle of fish, being more in the tradition of the Bond-inspired spy spoofs that littered the decade, though based – loosely – on an Edgar Wallace story. As such, it’s a bit of an oddity – needlessly convoluted with far too many characters (seemingly, the need to cram in as many recognisable names as possible was more important than plot cohesion) and having an uneasy mix of comedy and action. It has that odd Euro co-production vibe to it as well, here mad even more uneven by the Hong Kong connection. The result is a film that is never boring, but which really fails to hang together.
Like a lot of Towers films, this boasts exotic locations that are made to look cheap – Hong Kong looks like a slum in much of the exterior work – and an international cast that inevitably includes his wife Maria Rohm. Heading the cast is Robert Cumming, who seems to taking inspiration from Dean Jones in the wise-cracking klutz stakes, playing a gum salesman who gets caught up in a rather complex mystery involving a secretive crime syndicate (the titular Dragons) after meeting a pair of bikini-clad hotties (Rohm and Maria Perschy) who have a connection to the gold smuggling criminals. This results in a lot of chases, running around, kidnapping, murder and our hero getting involved in the case for no immediately obvious reason. His investigations lead him to a nightclub where sultry singer Margaret Lee takes him back stage and denies any knowledge of the Five Golden Dragons, before heading out on stage to sing a song that explicitly mentions them several times. That gives you a clue as to how coherent and well-plotted this is. Lurking around are shifty looking nightclub owner Sieghardt Rupp and Klaus Kinski, who gets to rough people up but doesn’t seem to play a major role in proceedings.
Eventually, we get to meet four Dragons – a marquee busting and budget-friendly brief appearance from Christopher Lee, George Raft, Brian Donlevy and Dan Duryea, who presumably did a day’s work and got a holiday in Hong Kong out of it. The identity of the fifth Dragon is the film’s big mystery – the solution to this makes no sense at all, given that none of the Dragons know each other anyway. It would involve too many spoilers to discuss it further, but you’ll be left wondering why the finale involves such a needlessly convoluted plan. Investigating all this are Rupert Davies as Police Commissioner Sanders (a character who appears in several other Edgar Wallace tales) and Chinese colleague Inspector Chiao (or “Inspector Goodbye” as Cumming so wittily calls him).
The plot of Five Golden Dragons is all over the place, with the film content to pile on action scenes (sometimes dubbed with a comedy soundtrack), humour, sexy girls and police procedural, none of which really hangs together well. Cumming seems to be making a different film to everyone else involved, his performance being close to slapstick, and Kinski – one of cinema’s great villains – is rather wasted in a part that involves him mostly lurking about looking sinister. He’s eventually disposed of in a moment that is laughably lame.
But if you forget about wanting any sort of storyline and simply sit back to enjoy the sheer ridiculousness of it all, then this is enjoyably wacky. It’s the sort of film that couldn’t have ben made in any other decade, the somewhat camp, lightweight nature of the narrative giving it a curious innocence. There’s violence, but nothing too graphic; sexiness but no sex. And although it seems determined to leave you scratching your head, it’s nevertheless a lot of vacuous fun. What’s more, there are odd moments that actually work well – the scenes with the Dragons, dressed in fantastic super villain outfits complete with golden dragon masks, opening the doors of a golden pagoda to prove their identity (use the wrong key and the pistol inside will shoot you through the heart) actually looks pretty impressive, and as villainous spider women go, Margaret Lee is impressively seductive and sinister in a variety of slinky outfits. She probably needed more screen time.
At 101 minutes, the film does feel a bit long – the lack of a proper plot does start to wear midway through for a while. But it picks up towards the end, and on the whole is ludicrous enough to prove a worthwhile time waster.