Directed by Chui Chang Wang (notable for some early Shaws such as King Cat and Twelve Deadly Coins) and set during a time of political and social turmoil in China ‘Thousand Mile Escort’ is part historical swordplay film in the vein of Heroes of the Ming Dynasty and part swordsman road movie with similarities to the Lone Wolf and Cub series.
At the start of the film we are told that the Emperor is losing his grip on his power and that the Tartar hordes are preparing to invade and snatch China. Meanwhile the Prime Minister Chin Kwei is manoeuvring for power himself and in a traitorous scheme has sent a secret letter of alliance to the Tartars. Unfortunately, due to circumstances I couldn’t quite figure out, the letter has been lost - which spells bad news for Prime Minister who will be finished if news of his betrayal becomes public.
Phew, the history lesson’s over, cue the patriotic Pai Ying (Bandits of Shantung, Valiant Ones) who, having turned up at the Prime Ministers palace to challenge him, realises he’s going to have to join him until he gets better chance. He starts working for Lo Lieh who is the Prime Minister’s General and hatchet man - silencing any one who dares speak out against the regime. On one such job Lo Lieh and his lackeys go on a mission to wipe out the family of a politician who stands up against the PM, Pai Ying can’t bear to watch the slaughter and takes his opportunity to save the politicians son and make good his escape. The rest of the film involves a cat and mouse chase as Pai Ying escorts (hence the title) the young lad in a Babycart-style push chair to his uncle’s house, along the way he discovers the Pm’s letter which is stashed in the lad’s jacket and teams up with Chia Ling who’s also been working undercover for the Pm in an attempt to expose his plotting. It’s down to Lo Lieh and his soldiers to retrieve the letter and finish off all the witnesses before they reach their destination.
I read a few reviews of Thousand Miles Escort before I bought it and they are all negative so this is my attempt to redress the balance - because I quite enjoyed it. Although it’s a fairly low budget film the decent cast and use of scenic outdoor locations meant it doesn’t look particularly cheap and despite the historical and political overtones after fifteen minutes or so it basically turns into a road movie with Pai Ying wandering through the countryside getting into fights (which isn’t a bad thing). As I said the main cast is quite good, I don’t think I’ve seen Pai Ying in the leading man role before but he does fine, nothing spectacular but he looks quite righteous and can swing a sword okay. Unfortunately we don’t see enough of Chia Ling for my liking, near the start of the film she gives a solo demonstration with her sword (which is good) but then she disappears for an hour or so, luckily she pops up near the end though to give Pai Ying a helping hand in dealing with the Prime Minister’s lackeys. It’s Lo Lieh who really steals the show however with his role as the Prime Ministers general / assassin, although he seems to be ruthless and evil in the beginning (particularly when they slaughter the politician and his family) as the film progresses we see another side of him as he is obviously wrestling with his conscience over the whole letter / betrayal issue and his loyalty to his boss. Later on however, after the death of his wife, his doubts are replaced by anger and thoughts of vengeance as he ruthlessly pursues Pai Ying and his kiddy mate.
The action which is almost exclusively swordplay is directed by Wong Fei Lung who I must admit I’m not really familiar with. The first fight which involved Pai Ying fighting some robbers set the alarm bells ringing due to it’s shoddy quality but the action soon picked up after that, especially whenever Chia Ling or Lo Lieh turned up. Pai Ying had quite an interesting weapon that fired out barbed spikes but for most of the time he used it as a sword - so most of the fighting was in a standard swordplay style you would expect from a mid seventies film. Although it starts off a little slowly once the story gets going the frequency and quality of the action increases as the chase for Pai Ying hots up.
So what’s the verdict? Although there’s nothing really spectacular on display in terms of action or story it’s still a solid swordplay film that’s given a bit of credibility by the presence of Lo Lieh, Chia Ling and Pai Ying. It’s no King Hu or Li Chia film but it’s still better than a lot of reviewers would have you believe.
6.5 / 10
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