Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment (1977)

Hola, a big-budge kung fu/action movie today, something quite a bit different than the usual slapdash chopsocky fare I usually review in this genre. Not as much silliness to poke fun at, therefore, but still worth the effort to detail for no other reason that it's quite a rare movie in English markets. Here we go.

Our hero (anti-hero, really) is "Golgo 13", an iconic hitman character from a variety of Japanese comics, movies, and animae. He's a mysterious hired assassin, the best of the best, and a tortured soul every bit as complicated as James Bond or Jason Bourne. The Golgo 13 nickname comes from the 13th man at Golgotha selling out Jesus (look it up).

He's played perfectly by 38-year old Sonny Chiba, one of those legendary martial arts movie stars that all kung fu fans know quite well (I've reviewed him before in Sister Street Fighter and Shogun's Ninja). Golgo 13's appearance is set in established canon through a decade of comic books--dark skin, short hair, long sideburns, cold steely eyes, and a penchant for well-cut suits and Western leather shoes. He's not a big man (Chiba himself was only 5'9" and maybe 160 pounds), but he exudes a dangerous vibe of hair-trigger violence and simmering sexuality that makes for a very compelling character. Women want him and men want to be him, you know the drill.

Golgo 13.

Our movie opens on a yacht off the coast of Miami, Florida, where Golgo 13 is hired by a drug boss to kill one of their own who is skimming off the top. $150,000 up front is offered to do the hit, and Golgo 13 offers guaranteed results in return. The target is "the Kingpin", who operates in Hong Kong, and as he's already dodged three hitmen, they called the best.

"And after you've killed the Kingpin, we have another target for you. Here is his picture..."

To show off his skills, Golgo 13 turns and shoots two thugs off a balcony from 800 yards away (from a rocking boat on the open sea, mind you). His signature weapon (here and in the comics) is a stock Armalite M16A2 with a simple 10power scope and a flash suppressor. Not the best choice for a sniper's rifle by any means, as the M16A2 was never intended to be a marksman's rifle, but it's suitably badass. He'd be better off with a dedicated sniper's rifle, however, like a Remington 700 or even a Winchester Model 70, or, since he is such an iconic cultural figure in Japan, you'd think he'd use something locally made (like the 7.62mm Howa Type 64, for example). Oh, God, do I sound like a gun-nut? Crap.


Anyway, we now leave our killer-for-hire for a while to go off to Hong Kong where the majority of the movie will be set. Here we meet Smithy, a detective with the Hong Kong police force. Smithy is working hard on taking down the Kingpin himself, and in a few set-up scenes we see him chipping away at the edges of the Kingpin's empire, roughing up small-time dealers and raiding dive bars. As is (sadly) typical of Asian cops-and-robbers movies, the HK police don't seem to have to follow any sort of rules or laws, they have a free hand to beat up witnesses and shoot suspects on the street without any fear of legal trouble. Not sure what this says about law enforcement in Asia, but it can't be good.

Smithy (ethnically Chinese, despite the Western name).

A note on our timeframe. In 1977, Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony, though they've always had very close relations with the Chinese government. As such, Hong Kong is filled with English-speaking locals eating fish-and-chips and cars driving on the wrong damn side of the road. As for the police, all the plainclothes cops are ethnic Chinese (for whatever reason the only Europeans we see on the police force are supervisors), and all the Constables of the Royal Hong Kong Police (Queen Elizabeth's finest, dontchaknow) wear spiffy khaki shorts, knee-high socks, and pistols on lanyards (time-warped in from 1937).

And they all have such awesome hair.

As a cover for his drug-running, the Kingpin operates a legit nightclub downtown. We go there now and the camera follows some customers around, stopping to linger on the half-nekkid dancers and the bottles of English scotch. The talent show for the night is a woman throwing knives at a human target, a favorite sideshow at carnivals across the world. As it turns out, the knife-thrower is an undercover cop named Lam, played with great gusto by a still-young Etsuko Shihomi (from Sister Street Fighter and Ninja Wars). Shihomi and Chiba go way back and have appeared in a number of movies together over the years and share a similar kung fu style (she's an unabashed Chiba protege).

Topless girls!?! Call Kelby!


Lam plants a bug and overhears the Kingpin talking about his drug shipments (her spygadget is hidden in her makeup compact). She follows the Kingpin in her car out to an old rubber factory in the sticks where the Kingpin has a cocaine lab set up. Using the cover of darkness and the sneakiness of her sneakers, she sneaks in. She's busted, however and is shot and captured by the bad guys after trying to escape.

The Kingpin is not a nice fellow.

Lam is hung up and tortured by the Kingpin (lit cigar to the abs, ouch!), but she doesn't give anything up. Her fellow cops look everywhere for her, but it's only days later that some kids playing near the rubber factory find her dropped police radio and turn it in. Rushing to the scene are Smithy and a bunch of HK cops, all in plainclothes and carrying revolvers, followed quickly by a squad of Royal Constables in their olive drab Land Rovers.

Nice to see that children will play anywhere.

A dozen or so thugs rush to defend the building and a furious exchange of pistol-fire leaves at least one cop dead and several others wounded. As well, poor Lam is shot dead after she tries to help her mates out (Etsuko Shihomi tends to die in a lot of her movies, I've noticed). Something bad then happens and the place blows up in a raging fireball! As Hong Kong apparently lacks a CSI team, they lament that "all the evidence is lost", and so the Kingpin is off the hook.

She goes out a heroine.

Now, the Kingpin is working with a well-known diplomat named Polanski from the "Poranian Republic" to smuggle drugs into Hong Kong in his diplomatic bag. Polanski is played by ex-pat American actor Jerry Ito, known to us as the villainous Clark Nelson in 1961's Mothra, now considerably more gray-haired and wrinkled, but still just as oily and nefarious. It's odd that in Mothra, Jerry Ito's character represented the fictional America-stand-in of "Rolisica", and here he's also associated with another made-up nation, "Porania" (though this one is clearly meant to be European). As the movie makes a lot of effort later on to criticize the American government, I wonder why they picked a fake country name.

Polanski (that's his daughter there in the background).

While everyone is making money hand over fist, the rub is that Polanski is double-crossing the Kingpin, even sleeping with his insanely HotWife, and planning on selling what he knows about the drug operation to the American FBI in exchange for protection (and surely a fat ton of cash and US treasury bonds). So the poor Kingpin is being screwed from all angles, from his former bosses, from his wife, from the police, from his hairstylist, and now from his supposed partner.

The HotWife is indeed hot, and a wife.

Stepping into all this convoluted mess is Golgo 13, flying into Hong Kong from Miami on a big 747. He checks into a posh hotel as "Duke Togo", a pseudonym familiar to readers of the comics. He has his sniper rifle mailed to him in a wooden crate marked "drilling supplies" (who knew it was that easy?).

Duke oils his gun (nice suit).

Duke goes to the Kingpin's nightclub to recon, sitting in a corner booth and scanning all the people. He leaves later, and as he's walking away, he ends up helping a HomelyHooker evade the police after she shoots her pimp dead in the alley. The cops come quite quickly, including Smithy (they might have already been there to harass the Kingpin some more), and for the first time he meets Duke. He doesn't recognize Duke (few people have seen Golgo 13 and lived, apparently) and he lets him go as there's no reason not to.

Duke protects the HomelyHooker from Smithy and the cops.

While Duke is walking her home, the HomelyHooker's dead pimp's associates surround them, looking for revenge on the girl. The odds are eight-to-one, but they still don't stand a chance as Duke is just as lethal with his hands and feet as he is with his trigger finger. In about twenty seconds, five are dead and three more gravely wounded. I've said this before about Sonny Chiba, but his kung fu style is brutally efficient and most often fatal for those on the receiving end. His trademark Furious Rage Technique is more similar to an oldschool Bruce Lee than to that of the more modern "dance fighters" like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, who tend to toy with their opponents for a while. Sonny don't mess around with any of that, he just attacks and kills his enemies as quickly as possible. After it's over, the HomelyHooker goes her way with effusive thanks and Duke goes back to his hotel to clean chunks of Chinese thug out of his teeth.

I think they shot this scene in the daytime and just used a day-night filter, it happens a lot in this movie.

Alright, Duke has a job to do, and that's offing the Kingpin. He takes up position overlooking a ceremony where the Kingpin is dedicating a swimming pool to the city and lines up his shot. Seconds before he squeezes the trigger, however, someone else shoots the Kingpin dead! The end result is the same, but Duke is irritated that someone stole his thunder and he'll spend the rest of the movie trying to fix that.

We get all sorts of crosshair-camera shots in this movie.

The HotWife doesn't seem so sad to see her husband dead.

Duke then goes to see MisterPatch, an old retired assassin with a Serizawa eyepatch. MisterPatch is an broken old man living out a retirement of obscurity in a Hong Kong ghetto after a life of murder and mayhem (what Duke will end up being in 20 years, if he survives). He counsels Duke to be careful, but is aware that the younger man is still at the top of his game and unlikely to see his point of view.

Not sure, but this character is probably someone you'd know if you read the comics.

Later, Duke goes to the night club to talk to the Kingpin's HotWife, to find out who might have shot her husband (why he's even concerned is not well-explained but it may have something to do with his bruised ego). Well, I guess she'd be the Kingpin's HotWidow now, not that it matters to her. Sharing James Bond's seemingly effortless ability to bed pretty girls, Duke and the HotWidow end up doing the blanket rumba back in her room.


Let's get it on...

But the HotWidow is in league with Polanski now, and she was planning on killing Duke all along. But she's not quick enough (few mortals are) and she's caught in the act and Duke has to head-shot her when she pulls a gun. Also in common with 007 (from all eras), Duke has no problem shooting sexy ladies in the face, even post-coitus (not sure what this says about our hero-worship of these sorts of action stars).

One less pretty girl in the world.

Aware now that Golgo 13 is on his trail, Polanski gets on a plane and flies to Japan to meet with the American FBI. As we shall see, there's no good reason at all why he couldn't just meet with the FBI in Hong Kong, but in a movie like this the more exotic locales you can mix in the better. Duke boards the same plane and follows Polanski to Japan, tracking him to the imperial city of Kyoto where Polanski meets with an FBI agent in a park. Duke surreptitiously records their conversation with a boxy Sony HandiCam camcorder, a kitschy retro consumer electronics whiz-bang from the days when tools had style as well as functionality.

With our retro-crazed culture, it would be peachycool to put modern digital technology in a throwback boxy metal case like that.

The FBI agent's car has a handicapped sticker?

Detective Smithy now comes to Japan on quasi-official business. He talks to the Tokyo cops about Duke Togo, and the locals let him know that they think he's here following the Poranian diplomat Polanski. However, they have no reason to arrest Duke either, as he's done nothing wrong that they know of. Hearing that Duke is in Kyoto, Smithy decides to follow him there.

Check out that suit! And that tie! Damn!

Smithy's cute younger sister here studying in Japan and she comes to visit him and be his tour guide in Kyoto. They have some fun moments together, laughing and reconnecting, though it kinda seems like her character was written-in just to have (yet) another pretty young actress on the bill. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, you can never have enough Asian girls under any circumstances, but her scenes do tend to drag a bit. And when she was first introduced, we got one of those zooming close-ups on her face that suggests to me that audiences in 1977 would have recognized the actress (but I don't).

Riding along on the 200kph bullet train from Tokyo (hear that, Mister Crumbling American Transportation Infrastructure?).

Smithy locates Duke at a Kyoto hotel and tries to detain him. Duke correctly reminds him that he has no jurisdiction in Japan, but Smithy still tries to hold him down. Duke has to block-fu him around a bit before escaping, though Smithy emerges none the worse for wear (just a smarting ego). Then, as Polanski has already flown back to Hong Kong, Duke also gets on a flight back there, determined to hunt him down.

Oh, you are such a badass.

So, back to Hong Kong now for the rest of the film. Tipped off by a desperate Polanski, the local cops know that Duke Togo is actually the near-legendary Golgo 13 and set about hunting him down. Hong Kong is a very busy and populous city, but it's still a small island, so they eventually locate him in the Kowloon district, in the "Walled City" area. We now have a great foot/bus/car chase through the narrow, crowded streets and back alleys. The Walled City was a rough-and-tumble area (sadly, torn down by now), known for its high crime rate and poverty and general lawlessness (sorta like Hell's Kitchen in the 1930s), and it makes a fantastically gritty and noisy backdrop for an excellent Jason Bourne-type dash-and-run chase sequence.

"He went thataway!"

Duke has a pistol on him and he knows he has to ditch it before being caught (right now all the cops would have on him is possession of a firearm, a crime in Hong Kong). He happens upon the HomelyHooker (the girl who he saved before), and she secrets his gun away for him in repayment. I was assuming that she would show up again sometime, they spent too much time setting up her backstory just to let her disappear. I note, however, that she's wearing the same outfit she had on when we first met her, days and days ago (I tend to notice these things). Duke then gives himself up to the cops who have cornered him by now (running more would only get him in deeper legal trouble).

Encircled by the cops (lot of high-angle shots in this movie, sort of a director's trademark).

They take him to the police station and do the whole tied-to-a-chair and bright-lamp-in-face routine, but Duke keeps his mouth shut. It's a test of wills between Duke and Smithy now, as each sweats the other out for an entire night (Duke wins, as he doesn't squeak). Eventually the cops have to release him as they have no evidence he's done anything illegal in Hong Kong (yet).

Just close your eyes, duh.

After being released, we see Duke walking through a construction equipment junkyard at the edge of the city (where's he going?). A gang of Polanski's hired thugs attack him, led by a German fellow named Schultz who has a weird nervous habit of holstering his pistol between every shot. Duke easily takes care of the cannon fodder thugs and then impales a broken-off two-by-four into Schultz's chest while sliding down a crane's cable twenty feet in the air (yeah, baby!). Unfortunately, Duke takes a bullet in the leg during all this and is now hurting bad.

Duke is attacked by a Chinese boy-band.


Needing medical attention but clearly unable to go to a hospital, Duke is fortunate to come across the HomelyHooker once again (small world!). She takes him to her houseboat and nurses him back to health. Raising the squirm-factor, he digs out the bullet with a pocket knife heated over a match (he's tough). That night the HomelyHooker opens up about her sad, dead-end life, and she's clearly smitten by this handsome stranger who risked his life to save her. They make love and she has stars in her eyes, but Duke is not the type of man to settle down for longer than an hour, and in the morning he's gone. He does leave her his necklace, however, showing us that Golgo 13 has a bit of a softy side after all.

Loving the HomelyHooker.

The cops have been searching for them and after Duke has left, they come to check out the HomelyHooker's boat. They rough her up a bit, but leave her alone, she's not the one they are looking for. While Smithy tells her that Duke is not coming back for her (true), the HomelyHooker is still deluded by her own emotions (poor girl). As action movies always show, getting romantically involved with the hero is usually a disaster (at least the HomelyHooker didn't end up dead).

Fairly typical of Chinese coastal communities, or so I hear.

Increasingly worried that he's an assassination target, the corrupt Poranian diplomat Polanski wants to seek asylum at the US embassy in Hong Kong (who will gladly take him, we take anyone). Detective Smithy has been watching his every move, however, and when Polanski tries to drive from his own embassy across the city to the American embassy, Smithy and his fellow cops do their best to delay him (they can't arrest him because he has diplomatic immunity). After a paint-swapping, fender-grinding car chase through the windy curvy (and suspiciously empty) back streets of Hong Kong, they force his Mercedes to turn back to the Poranian embassy again. This, of course, could only happen in the movies, as in real life that would result in a shitstorm of international protests.

For those so inclined, the diesel Mercedes sedan (C) is being boxed in by a Toyota Celica (L) and a Hillman Minx (R).

Totally freaked now, Polanski arranges to go to a small island off the Chinese coast where an American FBI agent has set up a safe house (this movie doesn't like America...). They have these nifty closed-circuit security cameras set up all along the perimeter, which they make a really big deal about (were CC cameras really that novel in 1977?). The FBI agent has also hired a bunch of local thugs to guard the island while they await transport to America.

Wow, that is a pimpin' jacket.

"Do you get Showtime?"

Smithy knows this and he and bunch of plainclothes cops and Royal Constables board a police boat and sail out to raid the island. There's no negotiation here, just drawn pistols and gunsmoke as the cops storm the beach (what, no warrant?). The bad guys hold their ground for a few minutes but are eventually pushed back. It's amazing that anyone actually gets hit as apparently every person in Hong Kong has been trained to shoot from the hip just like a 1920's American gangster movie.

The cops outflank the defenders.

Love those oldschool blocky two-way radios.

His defenders routed, Polanski knows he's got to move fast if he's going to avoid being trapped. Polanski sends the oddly compliant FBI agent off in a powered wooden junk. The cops think it's Polanski and give chase in their police boat. In all my years of watching movies, this has got to be the oddest boat chase ever. Eventually they discover that Polanski is not on the junk.


As they see a small red helicopter fly overhead, the cops realize they've been duped and they'll never make it back to the island in time now. The helo, carrying a bearded FBI agent in a bad puke-brown suit, lands and picks up Polanski and his daughter and flies off (presumably somewhere the local law enforcement can't reach him).

Aww, it's so dinky.

By this point, Duke has arrived on the scene. After having scuba'd onto a deserted beach on the other side of the island from all the gunfights, he uses pitons and ascenders to rope his way up the side of a sheer cliff face. He's still here, swinging from the ropes and lovingly stroking his rifle, when the helicopter flies slowly overhead. Being the master marksman, Duke takes the shot instantly.

Deadly in any substance-- solid, gas, or liquid.

Adjust for the wind!

The bullet meets Polanski's forehead (through the helicopter's windscreen, no less) and he falls backwards out of the helo into the water. The Hong Kong police boat comes quickly, running the hovering helicopter off, and collects the floating body. On his person is a list of drug runners and contact information, which will prove invaluable to Smithy and his men.

I googled the hell out of the internet and think this particular boat (#90) is still in service with the HK Water Police.

Our stinger is Smithy seeing Duke off at the airport with a cheap-shot punch to the nose and a stern warning not to come back to Hong Kong. Duke then disappears into what you would logically assume was preproduction on a big-budget sequel. For whatever reason, however, Sonny Chiba never did reprise his role as Golgo 13 (though he wasn't slacking, he had nine movies come out in 1977 alone). The iconic sniper character did return in a number of animated movies and television series from the '80s to the '00s, but so far no more live-action movies (travesty!).

That's not a hug.

Not bad! The End.

Written in March 2010 by Nathan Decker.

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