The Super Inframan

The Super Inframan ★★★½

Since their conceptions, the Ultraman and Kamen Rider franchises have always held a tight stronghold on audiences all across Asia, these daring heroes and their eternal fights against monsters from outside this world have always made for captivating entertainment and the effects constructed to bring these larger-than-life heroes and their conquests to life have codified a type of movie so pervasive and so persistent that it'd be hard to suggest these types of shows/movies and their effects-driven spectacles will ever go away. The tokusatsu film (AKA films or programs with heavy use of special effects, to put it generically and kinda missing the real visuals of media that branding usually specifies) is primarily considered a Japanese artform, though the rest of Asia has collectively put their hands into making their own versions of this style of film (lord knows how many times Taiwan's attempts have grabbed my keen eye), but it's Hong Kong and the illustrious Shaw Brothers studio that are responsible for arguably the most endearing and familiar knock-off of the classic tokusatsu era, inventing the very first HK superhero in 1975 with Infra-Man (or, as its Chinese title translates to, Chinese Superman, which boy does that bring up an amazing "what-if" crossover right there), a fun, slick, though cumbersomely derivative, romp of a film that dared to bring us a man beyond bionics.

In 2015 (or what the 70's thought 2015 was gonna look like, i.e. the 70's), Princess Dragon Mom rises from beneath the Earth's core to send her malformed minions out to enslave the world, leading to one scientist creating a new hero in the form of Infra-Man, capable of superhuman strength and also apparently the world's first solar-powered hero. What happens in the film in terms of story is pretty much secondary, this is pretty much an all-ages sugar rush of a tale a la the first Ultraman series and as such feels pretty identical to the routine turns of events and "surprises" one will expect if you're seasoned to that show's formula like I am. Then again a Shaw Brothers joint is rarely defined by its story, and that's not to say there isn't creativity in tow here, a lot of Dragon Mom's side-villains do have very appealing designs to them, especially when the one demon who just looks like a human but with eyes on her palms (wonder how she holds things), or the drill creature who looks dorky and lumpy but is able to get some mean hits on our hero himself, but the film's greatest quality is that it is remarkably efficient in just slamming together action setpieces together and rarely slows down (with exceptions being some lightweight character interactions, such as Professor Liu Ying-de telling his daughter about the happiest day of his life being her birth, which is kinda sweet) in favor of pure entertainment. It distills an entire series' worth of Ultraman episodes down to a brisk 90 minutes (right down to a little girl shouting her excitement at seeing Inframan with "There's Infra-Man" in spite of this moment literally being the first time he's ever been shown to the outside world, guess even the in-universe characters just couldn't wait), and it holds about as well in terms of delivering the fun and ludicrous monster tussles one would expect from that analogy.

And I'll say this, Shaw Brothers don't slouch in terms of offering some effort in terms of building the effects necessary to make such a film work and in fact can be enhanced by its noticeable constraints, like Infra-Man's transformation sequence being 4 backflips in a row, that's hella tight, or beams that are clearly drawn-by-hand and yet feel just as convincing as any big-budget feature, this era of tokasatsu is within a gracious sweet spot where even effects that look crummy have a delightful charm to them and while, yes, the movie's effects aren't great, they do more than enough to give the film's borderline-campy deluge of Saturday-morning superhero fun justice and can at times even be on-par with the effects found in, say, Ultraseven (though given that that was a TV show from the late 60's versus a movie-theater film from the mid-70's, that could easily count as a compliment just as much as an insult). The fights themselves are...fine? Like, it's been a minute since I've seen a Shaw Brothers production so I don't have a fresh comparison to work off of, but some of these fights lack the sort of kinetic energy from the kung fu films of this era or even some of Japan's authentic tokusatsu action, the choreography is clearly that form of loose, jagged style I tend to expect from the company but it lacks some of the impact their punches usually bring and I started to notice that as the film went on my excitement for the rounds of kicks and slams significantly wore down in comparison to the more steady fun they bring, maybe it's because they found themselves ill-equipped to work with the costumes and thus that extra baggage doesn't allow the fighters to reach their potential but MAN something's missing in making this a type of 36th Chambers of Shaolin type of fist-spectacle.

Maybe it's because, as odd as this is for me to say, Infra-Man doesn't take as much risks as I want, it sticks fiercely to the Ultraman playbook and as such it gives the explosions, pummelings, and weird monsters gabbing and cavorting around our hero, and those can get me into a giddy feeling so it never feels lesser than your average episode of Ultraman, but instead it feels lesser than your average episode of Ultraseven or Ultraman Leo because it offer no surprises to break away from that formula, you get some good bits like brainwashed insiders or Dragon Mom turning into a literal dragon that looks like my next costume for the Halloween party, but this is exactly what the tin says and promises, nothing more, nothing less, and the more exposure I've HAD to the Ultra series allows better articulation towards why this steep decline of fun to be had occurs exactly the same as it did when I first watched this like five years ago. Maybe it's because I'm spoiled on Hong Kong wunderkinds like Lam Ngai-Kai or other bonanzas like Thrilling Bloody Sword, or hell, even Child of Peach, we're kinda getting several degrees removed from this film by bringing that one up but Child of Peach gave me something I couldn't have predicted at all and its anti-climax feels better all for it, whereas this film's anti-climax (beyond a pretty fun gag regarding Infra-Man's repeated attempts to kill Dragon Mom the exact same way) feels just like that, a dud in the film that hints at greater potential. I don't want this to sound like I was miserable watching this, quite the opposite because you'd have to try REALLY hard to fuck-up this kind of movie, but in a better world we'd have like ten other movies in the Infra-Man series, and yet, this candy-rush film is all we have of the continuing adventures of the man beyond bionics and the only man capable of saving the world with the power of the sun. What a bummer.

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