The Human Tornado runs out of steam in this lame, stitched-together kung-fu flick.
It’s time again to check out a universally panned movie and see if there are any redeeming qualities. Rudy Ray Moore’s character Dolemite is back on screens thanks to a fantastic biopic starring Eddie Murphy on Netflix. The character was a cult phenomenon that found his way into many projects outside of the blaxploitation genre through the years. One of them was Shaolin Dolemite…a dodgy production, even by Dolemite’s standards.
Even the genesis of this film is a nightmare to understand. Apocrypha has that director Robert Tai took unused footage from 1986’s Ninja: the Final Duel. Some accounts say that Tai shot 10 hours of footage for his film, of which 90 minutes made the final product. Turns out the story is even stranger.
This fascinating article states that Tai was infamous for taking all of his footage and re-cutting it to make new movies out of the elements. Ninja: The Final Duel isn’t even a single movie: it’s three movies that got the same name upon Western release. Tai even cut parts to use in making other films not in the “story” of the three-part N:tFD saga.
Shaolin Dolemite is one result of this shuffling.
Shaolin Dolemite (1999).
A rogue warrior from the Dolemite clan (Eugene Thomas) assaults the Wu-Tang temple and steals a magical artifact. Working together with a clan of ninja with a blood feud against the Shaolin, he hopes to become the ruler of the martial arts world.
Several wandering warriors, including a Japanese prince, a western swordsman in a coonskin cap called Davey Crockett, and the scion of the Dolemite clan himself (Moore as Monk Ru-Dee) converge on the temple for their own reasons and aid the monks in their struggle.
What Went Wrong?
- Jigsaw Puzzle. The re-working of the original footage creates a plotline nightmare. In the “original” film, many of characters have different relations to each other. Thomas’ character wasn’t always the bad guy, for instance. Trying to cobble together the scenes so they fit the new narrative means tons of continuity errors, dropped plots, sudden jumps, and bizarre changes in settings.
- Cut for a Reason. A lot of Shaolin Dolemite is just plain tedious. The prince has a training montage that gets stretched to 30 minutes just to show the character doing something while the rest of the plot pieces are being introduced. The fight sequences also last forever and feel like a square dance as various characters fight each other then suddenly switch opponents. We get lots of connecting scenes that drag on and on so that the new dubbed dialogue can try (and fail) to make any story sense out of scenes that obviously don’t belong in the narrative.
- Rudy Ray Less. The director knows he put Dolemite in the title, right? Moore has almost no screen time, and does not in any way affect the plot. We just see him occasionally wincing in reaction to a fight scene and dribbling out some half-baked Dolemite-isms. Moore, 72 at the time, obviously wasn’t gonna fight, but if they brought him in they should have used him for narration…and written him some actual good material.
What Went Right?
- Let Them Fight. The fights, though overlong, offer some real solid choreography and impressive skill in places. It’s a chop socky film, so I didn’t expect Shakespeare. I was pleasantly surprised that 90% of the actors looked good fighting, had distinctive styles, and the camera work didn’t cheat them with rapid cuts. When people fight in Shaolin Dolemite, you at least see all of the movements, and the choreography plays to each style’s strengths.
- Variety Show. Robert Tai obviously can’t say no to including everything in his films. For genre enthusiasts, you’re at least getting a buffet of genre classics. We get several styles of kung-fu. We get tons of varied weapon combat scenes. There’s some (bad) wire-work. We get ninja magic and sorcery. We get metal zombie monks covered head to toe in gold and silver paint. Anything from crazy kung-fu films you could think of will eventually show up.
- Kung Pow. Obvious comparisons to Kung Pow Enter the Fist abound. Both recut old chop socky films for humor. Now…most of the humor in Shaolin Dolemite is bad (and it’s not like Kung Pow was solid gold, either) but not ALL of it sucks. The re-dub sometimes does decide to get crazy and actually insert some meta-aware jokes. Like when the head monk complains about ninja trickery and is told “silly Abbott, tricks are for kids!” I laughed a few times.
How Bad Is…Shaolin Dolemite?
Bad. Real bad. Don’t let anybody tell you that this is a “so bad, it’s good” film. Genre enthusiasts can find much better kung-fu in other films without slogging through the tedium of Robert Tai’s lack of restraint. Folks looking for humor are going to have long stretches of dead time on their hands. Those thinking this is a MST3K-style spoof with Moore dropping bombs on a 3rd rate B-Movie are being flat out bamboozled.
The worst sin is disrespecting Dolemite himself. Die hard Dolemite fans are going to be disappointed to see their ass-kicking, jive-talking hero relegated to the peanut gallery. The marketing for Shoalin Dolemite is a complete sham. It features lots of footage from other Rudy Ray Moore films, promising you a return to his glory days of over-enthusiastic “karate” action. Don’t you believe it.