The Bionic Boy/El Nino Bionico (1977)

‘You bums may end up as VPs of the biggest business in Manila.’

When a cop frustrates a crime syndicate’s assassination attempt on a millionaire business, he and his family are marked for death. The contract is fulfilled, but the man’s young son survives the attack, albeit with devastating injuries. However, the millionaire is determined to repay his debt, and the boy is fitted with some replacement parts…

A Hong Kong-Filipino production filmed in India that jumps on the coattails of the global TV phenomenon that was ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’. The star was the pre-teen Johnson Yap, apparently a Singapore-born Taekwondo expert.

Young Sonny Lee (Yap) is on a high after his outstanding victory at a high-profile martial arts tournament. This success leads to an appearance on national television with his parents and a burgeoning friendship with timber and car manufacturing tycoon Silverio Ramirez (Subas Herrero). Unfortunately, the businessman has refused to play ball with organised crime, and the New York Office has sent enforcer William York (Joe Sison) to take over their local operation and kick him into line.

Sison orders a hit man to take Herrero out, but the assassin is dusted instead, courtesy of Yap’s father, cop Jonathan Lee (Danny Rojo). As a result of his intervention, Sison sets his dogs on the policeman’s family. One homicide by bulldozer later, Yap is an orphan and comatose in hospital with little hope of survival. But Herrero brings in the world’s top scientists who rebuild the young lad with bionic components, making him stronger and faster than before.

Copyright be damned! Director Leody M Diaz and writers Romeo N Galang and Bobby A Suarez wilfully ignore the intellectual property rights of the American ABC Television Network to fashion their own take on a bionic superhero. There had even been a ‘Bionic Boy’ on the show; a teenager injured in a landslide played by Vincent Van Patten in a special two-part story in 1976.

Appropriately, the film plays a lot like an extended episode of a US TV show, but one with a tiny budget and even less ambition. Yap’s opponents are simply faceless gangsters, and we see almost nothing of his transformation and subsequent adjustment to his newfound powers. These are conveyed with the inevitable slow-motion and mechanical noises which accompanied Lee Majors when he went into action in the original show. Perhaps the only truly noteworthy thing about the film is that Yap does actually kill people. OK, it’s not up and close and personal but one of Sison’s henchmen falls from a cliff as they fight, and there’s no way that those two guys escaped from that van before it burst into flames! This is something that wouldn’t have been permissible in Western cinema back then, and would likely still raise a few eyebrows now.

It’s semi-hilarious that the scientists can resurrect Yap at all, given his injuries. These include very extensive damage to his internal organs, multiple fractures of the rib cage, a lacerated liver, a fractured skull, a massive inter-cranial haemorrhage, a badly damaged right cerebrum and visual centre, traumatic injuries to the optic nerves and blood vessels, and he will never hear again ‘unless medical science can come up with a replacement for the entire cochlea and vestibular apparatus.’ But, as Herrero tells the boy’s dying father, ‘Sonny is in a critical condition, but he’ll be alright’. And, a few minutes later, he is!

In line with the original show, there are also some fearsome 1970s fashions to enjoy, including massive shirt collars and wide flared jeans (may they never return). One of Sison’s laughing henchmen also sports a fine ‘fro which should have got him the gig as Cleopatra Jones‘ boyfriend. It’s interesting to see that dubious styling choices went worldwide even back in the days before Instagram and Tik-Tok.

On the credit side, the scenes of Yap tangling with the bad guys are surprisingly well-staged. Of course, a young boy throwing fully-grown adults around isn’t entirely convincing, but these scenes are far better realised than they have any right to be, especially considering the threadbare resources evident elsewhere. Apart from that, there’s very little bang for your buck, with the (very) lengthy finalé consisting of little more than dozens of extras running around firing off prop guns as the forces of law and order rush the criminal’s headquarters. Surprisingly, the film was successful enough to prompt Yap and the filmmakers to do it all again barely two years later with ‘Dynamite Johnson’ (1979). However, it wasn’t a sequel, more of a reboot. Although Yap’s character name was tweaked to Johnson ‘Sonny’ Lee and the basic premise was identical, the plot sounds far more outlandish. On this occasion, Yap has an entirely different backstory and takes on a Nazi madman and his giant robot dragon!

There is next to no biographical information available on the talented Yap, and it appears that he only ever appeared on the screen in these films. Writer Suarez was promoted to director for the second effort and had already enjoyed a long career in cinema, initially working in various administrative capacities in the Filipino film industry and spending an extended period in Hong Kong. He started working as a producer in 1973 and formed his own production company four years later. He directed nine features, mainly in the action genre, including the strange Mad Max-lost kingdom mash-up ‘Searchers of the Voodoo Mountain/Warriors of the Apocalypse’ (1984).

The original Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman franchise ran for an impressive five seasons and, with subsequent TV movies, a total of 21 years passed between the introduction of Steve Austin and his final goodbye. One of the films even featured a young Sandra Bullock as a new bionic character working on the side of the angels. It was only her second screen role. Proposed remakes have been knocking around for many years, most recently featuring Mark Wahlberg, but, to date, nothing has appeared. Wahlberg’s project had been adjusted for inflation to ‘The Six Billion Dollar Man’.

A persistently underwhelming experience.


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