I quite liked it. I'm the only one in the world who thinks so, but I did.
Admittedly it wasn't very funny, but that's not the end of the world. There's often something obnoxious about an unfunny comedy, but not here. The lack of jokes just feels a bit bewildering, that's all.
Firstly, I'd expected it to be more surreal. Given the presence of Peter Sellers in the lead role, I'd been expecting more of Spike Milligan's "Fred Fu Manchu", the bamboo saxophonist from The Goon Show. A Goon Show movie... some time I must check out Down Among the Z Men. Anyway, I was wrong. They tip the hat to Fred, but this is basically a proper, but silly, Fu Manchu movie. What's more, on that level, it's rather good.
Firstly, there's Sellers. He's perhaps Britain's greatest comedy actor of all time and here playing the intriguing double role of Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu, which on its own made me glad I'd watched the film. As Fu Manchu he's only okay, but that's a role that other famous names have struggled with. His Nayland Smith though is a fascinating creation, a broken man who's so painfully polite and British that you might not notice how clever he is. He's riddled with neuroses and eccentricities, but Sellers avoids slapstick and instead plays them almost for pathos. He makes him real! This, for me, made him even funnier, albeit in a cripplingly understated way. His attachment to his lawnmower, for instance, is kind of disturbing. Sellers suppresses it almost away to nothing, but that just means you're trying to poke under the neurotic Britishness to decide if this Nayland Smith really is having sex with garden machinery.
Then there's the relationship between them. They don't meet until the end, but it's fascinating when they do. I loved that, absolutely loved it. The "Sherlock-Moriarty" relationship is a cliche by now, but I thought Tennant and Simm did wonderful things with it in Doctor Who and here Sellers achieves something similar opposite himself.
There's also a personal resonance, in that Fu Manchu is searching for the elixir of life and Nayland Smith is similarly retired and broken. Meanwhile the real Peter Sellers was close to death from his heart condition and had been instructed not to make this film. He ignored the advice, only to end up sacking the director and taking the reins himself in addition to playing his double role. By the time the film hit cinemas, he was dead. It's his last movie, along with that of David Tomlinson and John Le Mesurier, if you don't count the grave-robbing The Curse of the Pink Panther in 1982, which Blake Edwards edited together from old footage, unused scenes and outtakes from the Pink Panther series.
Anyway, for me this makes it a quite a good Fu Manchu film. The plot is silly, yes, but it's not a parody. Of course this in itself is going to make it hard for some people to watch these days, but personally I'd have to think about whether I preferred it to the 1960s Christopher Lee movies. Yes, I think I do.
I also didn't find it racist, except in one way. There have been racist Fu Manchu movies, but for the most part this isn't one of them. The only bit I didn't like was the use of regrettable language, mostly "chinks" for the Chinese although there's also a mention of "fuzzy-wuzzies". In fairness Sid Caesar's "chink"-dropping FBI guy also calls Nayland Smith a "limey bastard" and doesn't even realise that this is offensive to Nayland, so it would be possible to argue that the film's deliberately making a point with the language... but I reckon that's a stretch. However apart from that, it's watchable. The only nationality being belittled is Britain's, for comedic purposes. Fu Manchu's Dacoits aren't useless, but instead succeed at most tasks they're assigned and can give a stunning gymnastic martial arts display. The Asian roles are being played by Asians, except of course for Sellers's Fu Manchu himself and even there the make-up people are being carefully generic with their yellowface make-up. Certain scenes in the film make him look either like the Valeyard or like Dickens's Fagin.
I can't believe I haven't mentioned the rest of the cast yet, incidentally. Helen Mirren is the leading lady. John Le Mesurier is Seller's butler and Clive Dunn gets to say "who goes there?" Burt Kwouk gets a cameo and an in-joke as Sellers notes that he looks familiar, which for normal people is a nod to Kwouk's ongoing role in the Pink Panther movies and for me also reflects the fact that he was in approximately two of the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films. This is a relaxing, pleasant cast that will make you warm and happy if you're familiar with British film and TV of the period.
Then there's the finale. I think my jaw actually dropped. You know, as in the cliche. That doesn't necessarily make it a good ending, mind you, but I'm still impressed.
This film failed both critically and at the box office. Everyone stayed away. I can't find anyone with a good word for it. Instead people seem to think that Peter Sellers's real swan song was his last-but-one film, Being There, which sounds like a masterpiece. Maybe you need to like Fu Manchu to enjoy this much-unloved movie, but personally I do and I did. There's no Dr Petrie or Fah lo Suee, Fu Manchu's evil daughter, but I could still take it more seriously than, say, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother
. For me, Sellers made it work. It might look like a big, stupid joke that isn't funny, but I thought it had surprising subtlety.