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Spillane’s edgy ‘Mike Hammer’ series will please crime drama fans

Date: 9/6/2011

Sept. 5, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

In the week’s DVD column a surprise from the 1950s and a great new action film from China.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: The Complete Series

When I was a mere boy and beardless youth growing up in the 1960s, Mickey Spillane’s novels featuring his hard-living detective Mike Hammer were seen by some as on the same level of adult entertainment as Playboy.

That’s because Spillane’s wildly popular mystery novels featured more sex and violence than nearly any other book in the crime genre. Unlike the “hard-boiled” detectives of the 1930s and ‘40s, Hammer wasn’t just tough and jaded. He was a violent brute and a dog with women.

The novels were made into successful, although sanitized, films and in 1959 a television version appeared, which has been collected in this new 12-disc set.

I will readily admit I will watch almost anything in which Darren McGavin appeared. He was a very busy actor, who I believe was under-rated by critics. McGavin had the task of bringing Hammer to the small screen, but was hobbled by the censorship at the time.

He and the producers were successful, though, in keeping some of Hammer’s basic personality.

McGavin’s Hammer is prone to violence. In other action shows of that era, one punch to the jaw would have stopped someone. In this show, Hammer would pummel his opponents.

He was willing to play a bit fast and loose with the law and McGavin’s Hammer was a dedicated skirt-chaser. McGavin, though, plays Hammer with a bit of a wink. He clearly acknowledges the outrageousness of the pulp character.

The black and white half hours are written well and move right along. Today’s audiences seldom see a half-hour drama on television, but there were plenty 50 years ago and it took writers that knew how to structure a story to make them work. The episodes I watched featured crisp stories with some surprising twists and turns.

This set would be a welcomed find for any crime drama fan.

The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Readers with sharp memories might recall my fondness for Chinese action films and this film starring Donnie Yen just recently made it to American shores through a release on DVD.

While Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li probably have greater name recognition among American audiences, Yen is certainly on their level. An incredible athlete and fight choreographer, Yen bring a charismatic intensity to his roles.

Chen Zhen is a fictional character that first appeared in Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury.” In another film, Li has played the character.

I’ve seen many Chinese films whose story and direction are designed to appeal to a wide international audience – they are not as “Chinese” as other films. This film is certainly Chinese. Set in 1925 Shanghai, the story revolves around the politics that lead to the invasion of China by the Japanese prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II.

Zhen is part of a group of Chinese laborers who worked for the Allies during World War I. Years later, he and the others are bitter the Allies allowed the Japanese to come in and take over a section of Shanghai.

For those who haven’t spent much time in Asia or watched Asian films, the Japanese have not yet been forgiven by some for the actions that country took in World War II, especially for the attitude of superiority it assumed over other Asian cultures.

When Zhen becomes a partner in an American-style nightclub in Shanghai catering to rich Chinese and foreigners, the intrigue begins as Zhen begins a resistance to the influence of the Japanese.

In some ways this is a love letter to Bruce Lee. Yen is portraying a character first played by Lee. He wears the same white uniform Lee did and uses Lee’s choice of weapons in the climax of the film. In one section of the film, Yen wears a costume almost identical to the one worn by Lee when he played Kato on “The Green Hornet.”

I have to admit I enjoyed seeing “Kato” kick some behind once again!

There are some great fights, elaborate sets and a fine performance by Yen. If you are willing to watch an action film with subtitles — and you should — this will not disappoint you.

The DVD has two “making of” features that show just how difficult action films can be to produce.

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