1/25/09

The Grab Bag: Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Hello folks, and happy Chinese New Year to you. 2009 is the year of the Ox, and the Ox represents prosperity though fortitude and hard work. When I think of a director who has always been a paragon of those virtues, John Woo comes to mind. In 1969, Woo started out as a script supervisor on films, and he would go on to get his big break in 1971 when he became assistant director under Chang Cheh, Director of One Armed Swordsmen and over a 100 other films for the Shaw Brothers. Then in 1974, Woo directed The Young Dragons with fight choreography by none other than Jackie Chan. The film was picked up by Golden Harvest Studios where Woo would make several other films. 

Tonight I bring to you one of those early entries by the director who would go on to be one the greatest directors of action films ever. So without further ado I give you....
Last Hurrah of Chivalry (1979) starring Damian Lau, Pai Wei, Kong Lau, and Hark-On Fung. Directed and written by John Woo.

On the day of his wedding Kao (Kong Lau) gets an unexpected visit from his chief rival. There is a big brawl in which Kao gets stabbed by his bride to be who has been paid off by Pak. Vowing revenge, but lacking the skills to defeat a fighter like Pak, Kau tries to enlist the help of Magic Sword Chang (Pai Wei). Chang is a former swordsmen who is trying to put his violent past behind him, yet he seems to always be getting into a fight. 

Soon Chang and his new friend Tsing (Damian Lau) become caught up in a world of vengeance and double crosses, master swordsmen, and beautiful women. The men fight side by side, but can they even trust each other as they take on the deadly skills of Pak?

Film Facts

--John Woo made several martial arts movies for Golden Harvest. 1975's Hand of Death even featured Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung before they became superstars. 

--1979 was the year that John Woo first met Tsui Hark who would go on to produce many of Woo's classic Hong Kong action films.

--The film is considered an entry into the Wuxia genre, films that mixed the nobel warrior philosophy called Xia with martial arts or Wushu. The films original Mandarin title is Hao Xia meaning "gallant man".

The Bug Speaks

I've been a fan of John Woo for many years now, and while his entries into film stateside have have been good (Hard Target), bad (Windtalkers), and ugly (Paycheck), all of his forays into the Hong Kong Gun-Fu have always brought me great enjoyment. (The Killer and Hard Boiled both being films that everyone who likes action should check out.) However it was only recently that I discovered that Woo once had his hand in martial arts films as well. 

The Last Hurrah of Chivalry definitely shows that Woo had a command of the action sequence early in his career. The movie features many (almost too many) fight scenes which are a mixture of humorous, bloody, and wild. Perhaps the best fight in the film is when Chang must take on The Sleeping Wizard, a fighter who can only battle while sleeping. Several of the scenes also feature slow motion and "Mexican standoffs", albeit with swords instead of the usual personal hand cannons that Woo's heros favor. It is interesting to see these trademarks so early in his career, but while the work is interesting, many of the fight scenes are dull or repetitive. This film clocks in at 1 hour and 45 minutes, and I think a more judicious hand was needed in the editing process. 

The film also picks up on a theme that followed Woo though much of his work in Asia. The tale revolves around Chang and Tsing as warriors who become brothers and learn from each other. This was something that Woo would come back to many times, perhaps most notably in Hard Boiled. Without the constant fight scenes, the film could have had a bit more time to explore the relationship between the two men, but as it is it becomes a thin but well played out storyline.

The film also takes cues from the work of Sergio Leone. The soundtrack has a very Morricone feel to it, and the look of the film as well as the story sometimes take on elements of Leone's style. Neither of the cinematographers have very many credits to their name, and I believe that Woo probably had a very heavy hand in the look of the film. 

The two lead characters played by Pai Wei and Damian Lau are both well formed men. I tended to like the sword for hire Tsing played by Lau a bit more, and it is a shame he doesn't get more screen time until the final act of the film. Wei does an admirable job as the "gallant man" Chang, and the relationship that forms between the two men is very believable. The other standout performance is Kong Lau as Kao. His character moves deftly between being a whiny weakling, a devious ner-do-well, and a master fighter with great ease. 

In the end this is a film that does hit the spot on quite a few levels. The story is rich and complex, and it's many twists are unexpected yet never feel contrived. The action sequences are bountiful, and most of them are well played out. The most unexpected joy in this flick is the humor, from Chang beating up his future brother in law to the Sleeping Wizard to some off the cuff jokes, it made me laugh out loud several times. For anyone into martial arts or John Woo, check this out immediately. 
Bug Rating

1 comment:

  1. John Woo ROCKS!
    Hard Boiled is one of the best action movies ever!
    [I also love The Killer, Bullet in the Head, Face/Off, MI: 2, all of them!] :-)

    Last Hurrah is a classic [as is Hand of Death]

    Definitely glad that you chose to review this movie, as well as the genre! Nice work, as always LB!

    ReplyDelete

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