It's a late 1970s Hong Kong action film from the director of Drunken Master, but with Sammo Hung instead of Jackie Chan. Don't expect surprises. It is what it is. It's broad and silly, but in its favour it gets away with some deranged tonal shifts and its comedy is funny rather than irritating.
Tomoko gave me this for Christmas. Hong Kong action films were insanely popular among Japanese children when she was growing up and I imagine they still are. Ignore the UK DVD's 18 certificate. As far as I'm concerned, it's a children's film. You might feel that there should be little difference between this and something like Commando, but (a) Hong Kong stars are cuddlier than Stallone and Schwarzenegger, (b) they use kung fu, not machine-guns and (c) the general tone feels tailored for a primary school audience. The overacting, the undemanding plot, the goofy comedy...
We begin with gags.
GAG 1: Sammo Hung is a butcher. That's not some kind of macho statement, but simply his job. He sells meat. We see him walking along with two dead pigs, whereupon someone tries to con him out of them. This involves a banana skin. I didn't quite roll my eyes, but it didn't make me laugh either.
GAG 2: there's a misunderstanding with Chinese chess that makes Hung seem an even bigger moron than he'd been looking already. This one's funny. (I want to play Chinese chess, incidentally, which isn't as brain-melting as Japanese chess but still has cool things like elephants that can't cross the river.)
Sammo Hung is studying martial arts under Wong Fei-hung, a real-life folk hero and revolutionary who's being played here by Kwan Tak-hing for the 70th time. Anyway, Hung's causing trouble. He doesn't mean to, but he's an idiot. There's a rival martial arts school in town, led by the swell-headed Master Ko (Hoi Sang Lee in unconvincing old age make-up) and it's Hung's fault that they're soon barging their way in for a calligraphy fight scene. That was amazing. It's kung fu, yet it's also calligraphy. Even if you're normally bored by martial arts and fist fights, that'll impress you.
A little while later, the plot starts ambling into view. A drunken beggar (Mei Sheng Fan) comes to town, steals chickens and turns out to be a martial arts master who can punch holes in walls. Then at the same time, Hung's brother (Kam Chiang) and sister-in-law (Jing Tang) come to town and get mixed up with a kidnapping semi-incestuous rapist. Fun for all the family! Don't worry, though; this doesn't damage the tone. You'll still be watching a movie that not only has a Carry On style "trousers fall down" gag, but even accompanies it with a Chinese swannee whistle.
Meanwhile Hung hasn't seen Chiang in ten years, so they don't recognise each other. Inevitably, as if this were a superhero comic, there will be misunderstandings and fisticuffs.
Mostly, it's just pantomime. However occasionally there will be something odd that to Western eyes doesn't belong. There's a man who kidnaps women for sexual purposes. There's an attempted rape that ends in the woman's death. There's an attempted suicide, although the scene's being played for laughs with Mei Sheng Fan in the middle of it trying to cook a chicken and pre-emptively divest the would-be suicide of the money he presumably soon won't be needing. There are five violent deaths. There's even a nearly moving bit towards the end, where Hung suffers a loss that fires him up with vengeance and briefly turns the movie into a proper film. That was a good bit. I was impressed.
You'd expect all this to derail the movie, but it doesn't. I'm normally an anti-fan of Hong Kong action movie comedy, but here the film swallows everything without a hiccup and makes it all work.
There are some amazing fights too. Only the final "big boss" fight gets up to the level you might expect from a Jackie Chan film, mind you. They're not stunts. This is a smaller film than that. Nevertheless there's some dazzlingly inventive stuff here, e.g. the calligraphy battle, and even the dull stretches where it's just fight-fight-fight are still impressive feats of choreography. It's like watching brilliant dancers doing all their party pieces almost faster than you can watch. I want to edit this to music.
The acting is fine too. They're hamming it up something rotten, but they manage not to let it topple over into pantomime, even if not all the scenes are entirely convincing and I occasionally found Mei Sheng Fan getting repetitive. Crucially Hung can overact palatably. By the way, his nickname in Japan is "debu-gon", i.e. "fatso dragon", but it's said affectionately because he might be plump, but boy, can he move.
The Drunken Master parallels, incidentally, include the same director, a similar combination of martial arts and comedy and crossover characters (Wong Fei-hung and Beggar So), albeit played by different actors. Drunken Master is the more successful and better-known film, though.
It's a harmless, amiable film, despite certain story elements that blew the fuses of the British Board of Film Classification. It only struck me as good for about five minutes, but it didn't cause me pain and it's clearly better than a lot of its ilk. You'll simply smile and roll with things like the overspiced foley track on the fight scenes, or the hilarious late-1970s crash zooms. I also liked the fact that despite the trousers gag and the sexually predatory villain, the film's endearingly prim and avoids innuendo and lewd humour. Sammo Hung is thrown into a tizzy when a woman's threatening to stay overnight in his house, for instance, and his only concern appears to be preserving her honour and reputation.
I wouldn't recommend it, but I'm not the target audience. I'm not that interested in fight scenes. However, that said, the martial arts here sometimes impressed even me. Weird Cat's memorable, for instance. Nevertheless I think for me the film stands out more for bits like the one where they play Popeye the Sailor Man's music.