Black Belt Brotherhood

Two months ago, I was reminded of The Dynamite Brothers because there is a scene in Killer Joe (2011) where Juno Temple is watching the finale while attempting to mimic the martial movements. It’s difficult to find behind-the-scenes information on The Dynamite Brothers. Thankfully, there is a chapter about the film in a 2021 book written by the executive producer. Samuel M. Sherman’s When Dracula Met Frankenstein details his working history with director Al Adamson. Before I got my hands on the book, I could only imagine what events had transpired. For example, the common denominator between The Dynamite Brothers and Star Trek is the RKO Forty Acres backlot. This was a pretty big coup for a non-union shoot. Throughout his career, Adamson wasn’t above shooting without permits and doing dodgy dealings with gangsters. Things were made easier for myself when I happened upon the August 6, 1973 issue of Box Office Magazine. Before Charles Earland was hired to be the composer, the first choice was Eddie Harris. The score was originally going to be handled by Atlantic Records, Eddie’s label, but they dropped out. As for Sam Sherman’s book, I learned the following…

The credited writers/producers, Jim Rein and Marvin Lagunoff, were mainstays in the music business with no film experience. Jim had a connection with a Chinese man who was a professional soccer player. Naturally, I am reminded of Eric Tsang because he was a friend of the film’s star – Alan Tang. Eric raised some money which he, Jim and Marvin decided would be used to make a martial arts film in New York. I’m reminded of the fact that Alan’s Wing-Scope film company later made a film called New York Chinatown (1982). Back to The Dynamite Brothers, one can only imagine how Eric met Jim and Marvin. Perhaps Eric thought that black music in a martial arts movie would make the genre more appealing to a black audience, especially in light of the Chinese whispers surrounding the making of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Anyway, Eric, Jim and Marvin wanted to shoot the film without sound and then send it off to Hong Kong where it would be dubbed in Mandarin. This is clearly influenced by the making of Bruce’s Enter the Dragon where the film was partially dubbed and edited in Hong Kong.

As for the dynamic trio, they needed a production company to carry out the plan. Executive producer Sam Sherman advised them to film in Los Angeles because there are a lot of sparse locations where you can stage car chases, blow up cars, and arrange spacious fight scenes. Sam recommended Al Adamson to be the director since he had a reputation on the West Coast. Jim and Marvin were a bit reluctant to proceed with Sam, so it took many weeks of communication in negotiating the project between Sam’s company “IIP” (Independent International Pictures), Jim & Marvin’s company (Larein Management Productions), and Asam – the Asian company. If reading between the lines could be compared to the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, then I am “closing the gap” with another interpretation. It seems like Asam wanted to make a movie that was essentially like two Golden Harvest films that Lo Wei would later direct back-to-back. After Bruce’s death on July 20 in 1973, Lo went to San Francisco where he shot Chinatown Capers and Yellow-Faced Tiger. Both Lo Wei films were truly Chinese films in that the main participants were Chinese.

One participant was Lam Ching-Ying, who worked on both films as a stuntman and fight choreographer. He also worked in both capacities on The Dynamite Brothers. Although martial arts films were all the rage in America, executive producer Sam Sherman initially didn’t want to cash in on the trend because these films were mainly played in urban areas with big downtown theaters whereas his I.I.P. company specialized in drive-ins for the Southern and Midwestern markets. Despite the racist implications, it was his idea for Asam’s film to have an African-American co-star. More specifically, it was him who vouched for Timothy Brown after seeing Bonnie’s Kids with his wife. Speaking of black people, Jim Rein and Marvin Lagunoff represented a recording artist named Charles Earland, who didn’t write music. Everything was improvised because he was a jazz artist. This was maddening for Sherman because Charles was as equally inexperienced in film production as Jim and Marvin. Charles and his musicians had monitors on which they could watch scenes from the film. They spent more time and money than originally planned but the record company footed the bill.

This seems to have levelled out Sherman’s original intention since the film was scheduled to shoot for four weeks but was filmed in approximately half that time. The classic soundtrack was recorded in November 1973 and remixed in December. Reading in between the lines, it seems like Jim and Marvin wanted to make a movie so that they could sell an album. Usually, you make a soundtrack so that you can sell a film. After the film was completed, Sherman agreed to distribute it but not through I.I.P because if the film flopped then everyone would be mad at the company. He was only willing to distribute it for foreign sales. Again, this echoes the making of Enter the Dragon because Warner Brothers had only agreed to invest in it due to the size of the Asian market. While The Dynamite Brothers was still in production, Sherman was working on finding foreign buyers. He scored big with Indonesia in such a way that the amount of money made had set a precedent for him. This makes sense because Alan Tang already had the experience of filming there.

Alan worked for an Indonesian company called Goldig, which was ran by brothers: Alex Gouw and Hendrick Gozali. As for The Dynamite Brothers being distributed domestically, Sherman knew someone at Columbia Pictures. He sent the movie for a screening but Columbia refused to be the distributor because the movie had no youth appeal. My translation: it needed a young white man and young white woman in the cast. Adding to the stress was that two of the main Chinese backers had moved from H.K. to live in New York. They were constantly demanding U.S.$ 150,000 in cash. Sherman called someone who already had experience with martial arts and blaxploitation movies – Jerry Gross, who was screened the film, asked how much Sherman wanted, and agreed to pay without any argument. Perhaps Jerry was smart enough to deduce that Sherman was under duress. Much later on, B-movie producer Daniel Q. Kennis remarked that it’s rare to find the sale price being the same as the original asking price. In his many years of being in the film business, that was unheard of.

In Jerry’s case, he already had the experience of purchasing a film for somewhere between 200 and 400 thousand dollars. In the case of The Dynamite Brothers, once Jerry had agreed to the figure, a contract was produced, lawyers were brought in, and the Chinese investment group were the first to be paid before anyone else participated…albeit the Chinese were paid in increments. Although more American and more modern than Enter the Dragon, it failed to make an impact in the U.S. market. Alan Tang’s English acting was so rough that you can only hear his voice for one scene that was shot in sync-sound i.e. the waterfall scene. Ironically, he worked as an English translator for a H.K. radio station before he became an actor. The film’s lack of success resulted in pressure from the Chinese backers to the extent that Sherman informed Jerry that they wanted a meeting. Sherman also told Jerry that they put up the money for the film and if they don’t get paid then Jerry will be killed. The next day, Jerry agreed to pay in two installments.

Shortly thereafter, Jerry’s Cinemation Industries filed for bankruptcy and went under. So now the Chinese are feeling good because they got their money, but they’re still pushing on the foreign sales. Someone was certainly inspired by how Golden Harvest’s Raymond Chow tried to make sure that he would be making more money from Enter the Dragon than Warner Brothers. Read Fred Weintraub’s Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me for more on this. In a nutshell, Chow knew that action movies make most of their money from foreign markets since action is the universal language. Establishing a reputation in foreign markets would allow for bigger budgets. Warner Brothers needed Asia, but Golden Harvest needed Europe. As for Sherman, he finally worked out a deal to buy the Chinese investors out of The Dynamite Brothers. What happens next? Eric Tsang told him: “It’s good you were able to handle Jerry the way you did and get us the money. I funded the film through some bad people in Chinatown who are in the Chinese mob. They would’ve killed me and him.”

Sherman wanted the title to be Black Belt Brothers but, by the time that they finished it, they had heard from Warner Brothers that they had a movie called Black Belt Jones. It began filming in July 1973 and finished in early September. It starred Jim Kelly from Warner’s Enter the Dragon. Warner asked Sherman if he could come up with a new title, so he changed it to The Dynamite Brothers. The movie was also released under the following titles: Stud Brown, East Meets Watts and Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The original title was reported in the following magazines: Box Office (August 1973), Fighting Stars (April 1974) and Black Belt (ditto). In the latter, Howard Jackson was interviewed (the below image is from this issue). He was a Karateka. He’s not credited in the final film, neither is Emil Farkas. Howard’s friend, Steve Fisher, is credited. Howard didn’t talk much about the movie, and I can’t interview him because he’s dead. Co-star Timothy Brown is dead. Not to mention that Alan Tang, Peter Chan Lung and Lam Ching-Ying are dead. Director Al Adamson was murdered in 1995, which is probably why Sherman felt compelled to speak on his behalf by writing a book about their collaborations.

It’s just as well because Alan Tang’s first American movie garnered no exclusive TV reports by Chinese news crews nor Chinese magazine coverage with extensive photos like there would later be with Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl. There have been no Chinese-themed interviews about it in the internet era. It speaks volumes about how Howard Jackson was so talented that he was cast in a 1979 H.K. movie called The Magnificent 3. Legendary martial arts movie star Yasuaki Kurata is one of the titular trio. Howard was a favourite of Chuck Norris since he worked on Code of Silence, The Delta Force, Walker: Texas Ranger, Missing in Action III and Invasion U.S.A. In the April 1974 issue of Fighting Stars, it was reported that 15 martial artists from H.K. were brought over for the making of The Dynamite Brothers. Clearly, Alan Tang knew about Bruce Lee’s plan to take 20 stuntmen with him to Hollywood. Minus Alan, 14 H.K. stuntmen seems an awful lot for a low budget U.S. movie, especially when you consider the stuntmen who are used in more than one scene, and there aren’t that many fight scenes…at least in the released version.

Only 8 Chinese stuntmen are credited in the opening credit sequence, but then there are American stuntmen who are not credited despite having appeared in the final cut: Ed Perry, Kurt Woodlon, Jim Stiebinger and Daniel Spelling (uncle of Tori Spelling). Fighting Stars also reported that the movie was released in January 1974. When I saw the movie, I noticed four stuntmen who weren’t credited – Yuen Miu, Bruce Tong Yim-Chan, Mars and Huang Ha. One of the Chinese men credited in the opening credit sequence is Kenny Mack. His Chinese name is Mak Bing-Kyun (麥秉權). He is the cousin of Leung Yat-Chiu (梁日昭), who is Hong Kong’s most famous harmonica player. Leung was born in 1922, and died in 1999. Back to Mack, three of his friends on Facebook are H.K. martial arts actors: Hsiao Hao, Chung Fat and Ng Ming-Choi: the last two being stuntmen who Bruce Lee wanted to bring along with him to Hollywood. Mack studied at the City College of San Francisco and Galileo High School (also San Fran). According to him, The Dynamite Brothers was partially filmed in San Fran.

When you look at the H.K. stuntmen who Alan Tang exported, there was only one stuntman in Bruce Lee’s inner circle that bothered with anglicizing his name: Peter Chan Lung. In Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend, he can be seen escorting Bruce’s son, Brandon, during the departure of the surviving Lee relatives from their home. Peter gently places his hand on Brandon’s back. For some reason, Peter grabs Brandon’s right arm like an authority figure would with a miscreant. As they near the gate, Brandon makes a sweeping gesture with his right arm as if to show how much he wants to distance himself from Peter. Robert Clouse, the director of Enter the Dragon, mentioned that there were spies on the set who reported back to the Shaw Brothers – a H.K. film company that was the main rival of Golden Harvest. Alan Tang, who didn’t work for Shaw Brothers, knew more about Bruce’s first U.S. starring vehicle than most people realize. In May 1973, Alan began filming a H.K. movie which had some of the people who appeared in Enter the Dragon. Iron Bull featured Meng Hoi, Wilson Tong, Hao Li-Jen, Mars and Lam Ching-Ying.

The fight choreographer of The Dynamite Brothers was Lam. Before this, his only credit as a choreographer was on Enter the Dragon. This wasn’t something that was known in the West. When the film was released in America on August 19, Lam wasn’t credited. None of the stuntmen were. On The Dynamite Brothers, most of them were credited in the opening credit sequence. Lam was credited as Lam Jing Ying. In the opening credits for the H.K. version of Enter the Dragon, Lam is credited as Bruce’s assistant choreographer under the name Lin Cheng-Ying. This is because there are many dialects in the Chinese language. Nobody in America knew that Enter the Dragon was going to be released in H.K. first, so director Al Adamson couldn’t have known about Lam being Bruce’s assistant. The H.K. release date was July 26. By the time that Alan Tang began working on his first U.S. movie on August 6, it was established in the Box Office magazine that there would be an editor to work on his movie during the four week shoot. This is intriguing since it wasn’t publicized in the U.S. press yet that the American editor of Enter the Dragon had personally supervised the production so that he could do a stellar job with editing the fights. This information was only relayed in the October 1973 issue of Fighting Stars.

Half of the stuntmen who Alan worked with were those who had worked on Bruce’s films: Vincent Kwok, Lam Ching-Ying, Mars, Lee King-Chu, Peter Chan Lung, Billy Chan Wui-Ngai (Peter’s younger brother) and Yuen Miu. Ironically, Zebra Pan was not among the list despite having worked on Enter the Dragon and being a regular collaborator of Peter Chan. They were such close friends that Peter was a constant presence on the set of a 1994 film called Circus Kids despite not doing anything, according to Bey Logan in his 2018 book: Bruce Lee and I. Back to The Dynamite Brothers, stuntman Erik Cord told me about the H.K. stuntmen: “I found them extremely talented. Worked together as one, loving every minute. Had a translator, it worked without any down time. They understood and spoke a little English. The only thing was trying to get them to wear pads. I LOVED the whole bunch. 🙏 OH! Very important – all the stunts, they performed everything. Adjustments was handled by their production company. All I knew was they received a decent pay check however they got paid. We all had fun. 🤩 I just wanted to know they were taken care of. But I’ll never know. 🙏”

Despite Bruce’s efforts for the stuntmen on Enter the Dragon to have bigger salaries and better food, their morale lowered when they found out that prostitutes playing themselves were paid more than them. It certainly didn’t help that the escort agency were credited in the closing credit sequence of the H.K. version while the stuntmen’s involvement made their profession a thankless job. Hell, actress Angela Mao was only paid $100 for two days work. Returning to the first paragraph of this article, what The Dynamite Brothers has in common with Enter the Dragon is that they were non-union productions. Director Robert Clouse admitted this in his book about the making of his film. This explains how Bruce was able to get what he wanted. Two decades later, Yuen Woo-Ping’s work on The Matrix was enabled due to it being a non-union film. Unlike Bruce, Alan Tang called it quits when it came to having a U.S. acting career. By comparison, Yuen Wah had more acting credits in English language productions. Yuen was Bruce’s stunt double but he didn’t work on The Dynamite Brothers, although he would later appear in a 1979 American film titled Jaguar Lives. It starred Bruce’s friend, Joe Lewis.

Back to The Dynamite Brothers beginning filming on August 6, 1973, Bruce had a July 20 diary note about wanting to suggest Raymond Chow to meet him in L.A. on August 6. Coincidentally, August 6 in 1975 was when Raymond made his final offer to Bruce’s widow Linda so as to purchase Bruce’s Concord company. Additionally, August 6 in 2011 was when there was an auction in H.K. where 13 of Bruce’s belongings were on sale. There was a letter dated July 20, 1973 from Bruce to attorney Adrian Marshall that many people have speculated to be forged given how it contradicts things which we have come to know about Bruce. What’s especially interesting is that Bruce supposedly told Adrian that he would be arriving in L.A. on August 3 so that the weekend of August 4 and 5 would be about discussing Bruce’s offers from around the world. This is odd since Bruce told his mother and the workers at the Black Belt magazine office that he would be returning to L.A. in late July. According to the letter, the Enter the Dragon publicity tour would end in New York on August 24, and Bruce would meet Linda in L.A. on August 26 to return to H.K. despite having wanted to leave H.K. for America by the end of May. Bruce was looking forward to living in America because libel laws were stricter than they were in H.K. Also, Robert Clouse’s wife, Ann, claimed that Linda didn’t like H.K.


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