I enjoyed that more than the last one
. It's a bit boring in the last fifteen minutes, but it's raised its game in subtle but definite ways and for the most part it basically works.
Stuff I thought was worse was... nothing. Okay, maybe Tsai Chin had less to do.
1. Christopher Lee. He's still playing Fu Manchu as the same inscrutable genius who's never flustered and is calm and in control at all times, but now there's more under that surface. He's fun to watch in that opening sequence where he blackmails a father by hypnotising the daughter to commit murder, for instance. My guess is that neither Lee (on debut) or Karloff were particularly comfortable playing this role, but this time Lee strikes me as having more fun with it. He's okay. I liked him. Most importantly, he's so cool and imposing that you don't mind the fact that he's a westerner in yellowface make-up. Mind you, he's still a bit wooden with the following. "When those men die, I shall rule. And the world will be mine."
2. Apart from Lee, all the Asian characters are played by Asian actors. That's a huge deal. That's the biggest single saviour of the movie. A lot of them even have dialogue. Burt Kwouk shows up and is wooden, but I'd prefer an indifferent actor of the right ethnicity than with a passable one who makes you want to throttle the casting director. Oh, and once again they've side-stepped the racist angle by making the film multi-cultural, with Germans, French, Arabs and various other nationalities, with the cast including evil Frenchmen and Nayland Smith's trusted Oriental servant. It's not offensive! That's quite an achievement for a Fu Manchu movie.
3. They've got a more interesting Nayland Smith. Nigel Green had been good in his own way, but he's still been replaced by Douglas Wilmer. I think it's an improvement. Wilmer's best known as Sherlock Holmes, both for the BBC and in the movies, and you can see it here. He's quite fun, while an interesting curiosity is that Smith's sidekick Dr Petrie is being played in all five of these films by Howard Marion-Crawford, who for his part was apparently best known for playing Dr Watson.
4. The story involves Fu Manchu having kidnapped a dozen beautiful women. I'm sold.
All that said, it's still second-rate pulp nonsense that doesn't always introduce its characters properly, doesn't know how to write an interesting third act and relies throughout on cliche. The series producer, Harry Alan Towers, also wrote their screenplays under the pseudonym of Peter Welbeck and it seems clear he's not a writer. He wrote a ton of scripts in his career, but this doesn't invalidate my claim. Even if we exclude Fu Manchu's hypnosis because that's from the original novels, this film's plot devices include infallible truth serums and reliably knocking people out with a single blow. Meanwhile Fu Manchu's henchmen are as ludicrously bad at their job as ever. They should have phoned up Bruce Lee. Middle-aged Englishmen in tweeds can single-handedly beat up groups of assassins, which gets so silly that there's a pretty evenly matched fight near the end between lots of Fu Manchu's trained killers and the escaped women, most of whom aren't even armed.
There's also a snake pit which Fu Manchu sometimes uses for executions. As so often in the movies, these lethal snakes include the likes of Columbian red-tailed boa constrictors. I wouldn't mind so much, except that the snakes are never in the same shot as a human, so there's no practical reason why they couldn't have brought in a few cobras and rattlesnakes.
However if we disregard such criticisms as high-faluting and irrelevant to something this lowbrow, then I'd have to say that the Windsor Castle operation is the coolest bit of the film, making Fu Manchu look ingenious and evil. However I did find myself clock-watching in the last fifteen minutes. The heroes aren't even involved!
I mentioned the international angle. It's starting to become noticeable in these movies that Nayland Smith will somehow pick up a random German civilian who's handy with his fists and will help him beat Fu Manchu. You'd never guess it was a German co-production, would you? However I quite liked Nayland Smith again expressing fondness for his time in Burma, which he appears to prefer to England and makes for a nice anti-racist touch.
Oh, and apparently Lee's oriental eye make-up is better. I didn't notice, but apparently it is.
There's a point of possible exploitation. The BBFC gave it a U certificate, so it's recommended for all ages (eh?), but a magazine called Castle of Frankenstein ran some topless production shots that appear to come from a racier version of the film for foreign distribution. What I've heard is that they're of alternate versions of existing scenes, but with fewer clothes. (I haven't seen them myself, although I looked.) However I have my doubts about whether this sexed-up version of the film was ever produced or distributed, since I haven't found any evidence that anyone's seen it. Something similar apparently happened with The Blood of Fu Manchu
(1968), with a photo of a topless, shackled Maria Rohm appearing on the back of the video box but not in any known cut of the film. That one definitely has a sexier alternate version, though.
Overall, I quite liked it. Apart from the dull ending, it entertained me. If you're looking for a one-line summary, it's a bit like a cheap, staid James Bond film, but instead starring a substitute Sherlock Holmes. Fu Manchu is like a Bond villain. He has grandiose plans to conquer the world, lots of henchmen and a secret base. Maybe he's the twin brother of Scaramanga from The Man With The Golden Gun?