Before John Woo became a legendary master of the bullet ballet, he honed his skills with the legendary weapons of China. He worked as an assistant director for Chang Cheh at the Shaw Brothers studio before moving to Golden Harvest where he would direct martial arts films. This is something I hadn't known about Woo. I was only familiar with his gunplay films such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Bullet in the Head. A Woo swordplay film won't have a single bullet casing bounce to the floor in slow motion, but you will find what will become standard themes for Woo: brotherhood, loyalty, and revenge, combined with copious amounts of sword swinging action.
The story begins on the wedding night of Kao. This proves to be a fateful night as the party is crashed by the evil kung fu master Pai and a number of his masked underlings. Pai accuses Kao's family of stealing the villa they are in, and a fight ensues. The fight leaves Kao's family dead, and the young man hot for revenge. Kao's plans for revenge are put on hold when Kao's teacher finds him not ready to carry a sword. So, the wheels start turning in Kao's head, and when he sees the fighting skills of Chang, he sets out to befriend him, and in turn recruit him to his cause. Chang happens to be a master swordsman who had left that life behind in order to care for his sick mother.
Kao's plans expand further when he enlists a wandering drunken swordsman, called Green, enticing him with money. Kao, who initially seems to be genuine in his desire to get revenge on Pai, is slowly revealed as a much more devious mind who seeks to get others to do his dirty work for him. While Kao's plan is put into effect, Chang and Green become fast friends, bonding over their enjoyment of drinking wine.
None of these elements are all that original. Anyone who has watched a few of these 70's era martial arts flicks will be familiar with the wandering swordsman, the master who has chosen to walk away, the evil kung fu masters who kill their own men, and younger upstarts who will stop at nothing to reach their ends. Where Last Hurrah for Chivalry succeeds is in the strong performances of the leads, and the development of the bond formed between men of violence.
It may not be as well developed as the films that would follow, nor involve firearms, but it is a sign of things to come. Beyond the themes, this movie should be watched for its action, as it is plentiful and well staged. The movie is littered with extended fight sequences which work towards the brotherhood themes, but work even better as action. They range from one-on-one fights, to two-on-one battles, to all out choreographed affairs. Each one is very well staged, contains its share of blood, and is easy to follow.
As for the look of the film, you see the beginning of Woo trademarks in terms of camera movement, angles, and the use of slow motion. Last Hurrah for Chivalry looks great, the cinematography is nice, and there is a nicely dynamic feel to everything. I do admit that it is a little odd seeing a swordplay film with John Woo as the director, but everyone starts somewhere, and this is as good an early film as you are likely to find.
Audio/Video. The film shows its age, colors are a little faded and grain is evident. Still, this is likely the best presentation it has had since its theatrical presentation. It is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and is anamorphically enhanced. Audio is presented in 5.1 in English and Cantonese, as well as the original mono Cantonese track. They sound good, not terribly full, but sound just right for this film. Nice, though not perfect, presentation.
Extras. Like the other Dragon Dynasty releases, this comes with a nice complement of features.
- Pray for Death: Interview with Fung Hak-On. This is an interview with the action choreographer for the film. He speaks of coming up with Woo at Shaw Brothers, and how they came together to work on this one.
- Deliver Us from Evil: Interview with Lee Hoi-San. This is a talk with the man behind the evil Pai. He says he wasn't handsome enough to play the lead, so he would play villains. He also speaks of what it was like to be on the set.
- Legendary Weapons of China Featurette. This runs about 12 minutes and is hosted by HK cinema expert Bey Logan, who also is a martial arts practitioner. This is pretty interesting, if brief, as it looks at the broad sword, straight sword, spear, pole, and others.
- Commentary. This track is with Bey Logan, and is an interesting listen. He offers all sorts of trivia regarding performers in the film, as well as a lot of the history of the film itself.
- Trailer Gallery. Original and US promo trailers for Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
Bottomline. This is a first rate martial arts film, filled with action, good performances, and is very easy to watch. Pai Wei gives a strong performance as Chang. It gives a nice glimpse of things to come, and is basically just a very enjoyable period piece.
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