Blu-ray Release: July 25, 2023
Audio: Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono; Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Home Video Mix; English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0
Run Time: 87:54 (Original Cut), 93:57 (Taiwanese Cut)
Director: Stephen Tung
Someone is using the living dead to smuggle drugs into modern day Hong Kong and only Officer Feng (Lam Ching-ying) – policeman and Taoist master – can stop them, proving the power of traditional Chinese magic in the process! (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
At the height of the 1980s, a large cross-section of Hong Kong’s movie output fell into one of two subgenres – period-set action/horror hybrids and modern-set cop thrillers, both often spiked with comedic trappings. The popularity of the former category is mostly credited to Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), which featured actor/choreographer Lam Ching-ying as a hard-nosed police inspector. Lam had been working in the industry since the late ‘60s as Bruce Lee’s assistant and became a trusted member of Golden Harvest’s repertoire as an actor and a choreographer/assistant director on multiple Hung films, such as Knockabout (1979), The Prodigal Son (1981), and Winners and Sinners (aka: Five Lucky Stars, 1983). He rocketed into superstardom, thanks to his appearance in Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1985, produced by Hung), where he played Master Kau, a Taoist priest who specialized in containing the threat of hopping vampires (jiangshi or gyonsi).
Mr. Vampire is sillier than some of the era’s more horror-heavy mash-ups and lacked the lyrical and romantic factors of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) – it actually spoofs that type of content to a certain degree – but it matched Hung’s brand of comedy and became the standard for a kind of sub-subgenre. There were four otherwise unconnected sequels from Lau – Mr. Vampire II (1986), Mr. Vampire III (1987), and Mr. Vampire Saga 4 (1988) – Lau’s canonical sequel in Mr. Vampire 1992 (1992, naturally), Lam’s canonically disparate Vampire vs Vampire (1989), and two TV series (Vampire Expert  and My Date with a Vampire ) both featuring Lam. The latter spun off into two sequel series in 2000 and 2004 after Lam unexpectedly passed away. One film often unofficially connected to the franchise and even known as Mr. Vampire 5 in some countries was Stephen Tung’s Magic Cop (1990), which saw Lam playing a very Master Kau-like character in a modern setting, where he utilizes his Taoist skills to combat a drug-trafficking witch and her kung fu minion.
Magic Cop is a near-perfect melding of the jiangshi and police procedural models, embodying the spirit of a Hong Kong horror-themed action/comedy with a combination of martial arts, clever, budget-friendly effects, and unexpected (not unintended) comedy, all wrapped up in the breakneck pacing one might expect from the child of Mr. Vampire and Police Story (1985). In lieu of massive action setups, we get a lot of smaller scale, crisply edited fisticuffs, and intricately planned, increasingly ridiculous sorcery techniques, including a sort of Taoist body-snatching method that allows Lam and the witch (Michiko Nishiwaki) do battle by proxy, ‘ice zombies’ that act like the Terminator (you have to squeeze the ice out of their heads to stop them), and a good, old-fashioned sorcerer show-down with wind machines, fire effects, and weaponized tiles. Magic Cop also pays homage to the original Mr. Vampire with the body-snatching scenes and one sequence during the final battle, where the villainess is blinded and the heroes need to sneak around silently to avoid her, emulating a similar scene where a vampire is blinded to victims’ whereabouts as long as they hold their breath.
Magic Cop is a fish out of water story, which might have been a reference to Graham Baker’s sci-fi buddy cop movie, Alien Nation (1988), but was another ingredient in the HK horror-comedy formula, as seen in Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, where two 3rd Century foot soldiers were transported to the realm of gods and supernatural beings, and A Chinese Ghost Story, where a rural tax collector stumbles upon a demonic family locked in a magical war with a Taoist priest. Magic Cop flips the cliché by having the supernaturally adept character playing the outsider, because he has gone from a rural, old world environment to a modern city. It’s also an Odd Couple situation, where Lam is teamed up with a skeptic (Wilson Lam) – a sort of Scully to his Mulder, if Scully sexually harassed her co-workers and hated Mulder – who he and his niece (Wong Mei-Wah) are forced to live with, leading to wacky traditionalism vs. modernism hijinks and an entirely unbelievable romantic subplot. There’s a second young cop who likes and looks up to Lam (Miu Kiu-Wai), sort of mirroring the dynamic from the original Mr. Vampire.
Magic Cop was stuntman/actor/action director/choreographer Tung’s (aka: Wei Tung) first of only four solo directorial efforts. He continues working in stunts to this day and some of his many career highlights include John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), David Chung’s Magnificent Warriors (aka: Dynamite Fighters, 1987), Mr. Vampire III, Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), and Raja Gosnell’s Scooby Doo (2002). Magic Cop was followed up by Yuen Cheung-Yan’s Witch’s Curse (1992), a very similar movie where Lau plays an old-world priest fighting supernatural threats in the modern world, but the ultimate end point of the Master Kau trends was Billy Chan’s Crazy Safari (1991), in which a Kau-alike teams up with N!xau, the good natured aborigine from Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), itself followed by Wellson Chin’s Crazy Hong Kong (1993) and Cho Kin-Nam’s The Gods Must Be Crazy in China (1994).
Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Pete Tombs (St. Martin's, 1998)
While there was never an official US release of Magic Cop on VHS or DVD, Hong Kong distributor had fans covered with a NTSC tape (with those burned-in layers of Mandarin and English subtitles) and a region-free DVD in 2003 that people are currently trying to get hundreds of dollars for that DVD on Amazon Marketplace and eBay. There was also an anamorphic PAL DVD from German company Imperial Pictures. 88 Films doesn’t supply much in the way of information on what went into the restoration of this Blu-ray debut, so my guess is that Media Asia had a 2K scan already sitting around. The 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer has all the hallmarks of a late-’80s/early-’90s Hong Kong genre movie – steely blue tint, diffused lighting, gritty grain, and colorful highlights via the era’s fashion. Fortunately, the remaster keeps the other common issues at bay, namely CRT noise, overly soft textures, and messy blacks/shadows. The main reason I assume Media Asia handed over an earlier scan is that the color quality generally matches samples of the German DVD I could find, but with better dynamic range and stronger supporting blacks, ensuring that it is a substantial upgrade.
Note: My review disc had a short-lived skipping issue around the beginning of the third act.
In keeping with other recent 88 Films Golden Harvest discs, Magic Cop comes fitted with a variety of audio options, including the original Cantonese mono, a Cantonese mono home video mix, a mono English dub, and an English 5.1 dub, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The two Cantonese tracks seem to be working from the same base dub and effects, but everything is a little crispier and louder on the home video track, which is usually an advantage. The 5.1 English dub is one of those awful, echoey remixes you’d hear at the start of the DVD era and features identical dialogue, effects, and music, so, if you prefer to watch the film in English, stick to the mono track. The music is all library material from BMG Melody Bank and, while it fits, it is unsurprisingly thinly mixed.
Commentary by Frank Djeng and Marc Walkow – The NY Asian Film Festival programmer, prolific commentator/interviewer, and everyone’s best friend is joined by Walkow, a critic specializing in Asian cult cinema and producer on The ABCs of Death (2012). They cover the actual religious and cultural practices that inspired the supernatural action, the life & careers of the cast & crew (including cameos), the structure and themes of the film and how they connect to similar movies, and various Hong Kong locations.
Taiwanese cut of the film (93:57, SD) – A standard definition, letterboxed copy of the longer Taiwanese cut of the film. The quality isn’t great, the subtitles are burned in, and the differences aren’t extensive, but the alternate score is interesting. It was achieved using what sounds like a particularly cheap synth keyboard and has a sort of 8-bit video game quality to it. It’s worth noting that this US release of the disc features uncensored versions of both cuts, but that the UK release has minor edits made to a scene where a cat is strangled by the witch.
Here Comes a Modern Vampire: An Interview with Tung Wei (36:21, HD) – Director Tung discusses his career, the screenwriting process, the Mr. Vampire formula, Magic Cop’s lack of budget, the logistics of special effects and action, casting & characters, working with Lam as actor and producer, and differences between his approach to the genre and Sammo Hung’s.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.