“It’s the most ferocious martial arts thriller of them all.”
– Trailer Narrator
When a film changes directors in mid-production and the musical score before its release, you know you have a film in trouble. When the film was intended to start a new TV series but ends up being the end of a two studio collaboration, you will begin to question what exactly went wrong. Such is the case with the 1974 British and Hong Kong action flick, Shatter. Yet, it comes from the legendary Hammer Studios and has the presence of Peter Cushing, so how could it be that bad?
Honestly, Shatter isn’t that bad of a film despite its many flaws and short comings. But, sadly, it’s the fact that you see what it could have been that makes it as disappointing as it turns out to be. I actually liked Shatter at times for what it was trying to do and I enjoyed certain elements within it. It offers us the feel of 1970s action flicks while mixing in some martial arts action, ever so popular at the time. Our main character, known simply as Shatter, is a well-known but low-rent hitman who is contracted to kill an African dictator. We witness riots in the streets as the film begins, courtesy of some overly obvious stock footage. As the dictator goes to a hotel to spend time with a young woman, he is shot by a masked man using a gun hidden within a camera. The ever-present trademark red Hammer blood is used in rather graphic amounts as Shatter adds to the body count by killing a guard on his way out the door. It’s then that Shatter makes the mistake of picking up a bag containing information he shouldn’t know.
As Shatter travels to Hong Kong for payment, he is followed and nearly killed. Upon meeting Hans Lieber (Anton Diffring, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Day The Clown Cried), he discovers that he’s been set up and is nothing more than a pawn in a convoluted political plot. He soon befriends the lovely Mai-Mee (played by the no-so-talented Lily Li) and Tai Pah (Lung Ti, a Bruce Lee wannabe). They travel around Hong Kong evading various gangsters and covert government agencies while trying to get the upper hand and secure their future. It’s here where the film falters.
The script was written by Don Houghton, who spent time writing for various British television shows, including Doctor Who, before moving over to Hammer for their dying days with such films as Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and the only other Hammer – Shaw Brothers collaboration, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Not necessarily a stellar career but certainly not horrible either. Shatter didn’t need much plot to make it potentially exciting but the first misstep was casting Stuart Whitman in the lead role. He’s not an action star nor is he really sexy man leading material. He was in his 50s and, while it could have worked to have a more rugged and weary lead character, his heart didn’t seem to be in this film. Whitman was an accomplished actor but here he seems to be going through the motions. He was ill during the making of the movie, which caused numerous delays, and I believe it hurt his performance.
The real fault lies with the first director, Monte Hellman, who remained uncredited. Hellman only has 21 credits to his name spanning a 54 year time period. He started out working with Roger Corman, making his directorial debut with Beast from the Haunted Cave (1959) and actually directed some portions of The Terror (1963). He certainly had some well-known films under his belt going into Shatter, including Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). But in the Hong Kong streets, his actions sequences lacked excitement and were, at times, confusing. Visually speaking, Hong Kong is made to look like a slum, which apparently was not the intent. Michael Carreras was brought in to save the film but there was little he could do at that point. He had a long history with Hammer as a producer while directing and writing as well. However, Shatter would so discourage Carreras from the film making process, he never directed again and would produce only one more film before ending his career in 1979 while still a relatively young man in his 50s.
The score for the film is also very unnoteworthy. Shaw Brothers tried for a typical action score but Hammer was displeased and music director Philip Martell was brought in to rewrite it. The end result seemed rather cliché and couldn’t help with the haphazard action sequences and overly written sequences.
So where is Peter Cushing in all of this you ask? Well, he is listed as a “guest star”, which amounts to essentially three scenes that were shot in a minimal amount of time. Cushing plays government agent Rattwood and, as usual, his presence elevates the film from obscurity, but just barely. He does his usual top-notch job turning in a rather snobbish and less-than-pleasant government man who looks down upon Shatter as nothing more than a two-bit player in a much bigger game. It’s great as always to see Cushing and he comes along at just the right moments but his role is small, so don’t expect too much. This would be his 23rd and final Hammer film. In fact, Hammer itself was nearing the end as it only did a couple more films left before turning to television, then ultimately shutting down in the early 80s.
Shatter is worth watching for the history it holds but it will certainly leave you longing for something better. It will leave you saddened that the once great Hammer was at such a low point by 1974. Nevertheless, the movie can be found on DVD, although it is out-of-print and goes for more than it’s honestly worth. Check out the trailer on YouTube and judge for yourself. After all, it does feature at least a little Peter Cushing.