Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) / Hand of Death (1976)
Director: John Woo
Cast: Damian Lau, Wai Pak / Dorian Tan, James Tien, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung
Length: 107 mins / 95 mins
Release Date: 24 June 2019
Jamie Havlin examines a couple of 1970s martial arts movies from legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo.
These are two very early movies written and directed by Woo. Both are set centuries ago, so no beautifully choreographed two armed gun fights in slow motion that Woo was to grow synonymous with. There is, however, much to enjoy.
Also known as Countdown in Kung Fu, Hand of Death is an old school kung fu flick. It’s maybe best known today for being the sole time John Woo directed Jackie Chan. These two men were largely unknown when filming began but a decade later both were superstars.
Jackie Chan isn’t the star here, though, and neither are his ‘brothers’, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Although Sammo, with bad comedy teeth and a relatively trim waistline, plays a supporting role as Officer Tu Ching, while Yuen makes a number of cameo appearances as well as performing much of the stuntwork, doubling on occasion for both Dorian Tan and James Tien, the movie’s leads.
Around this point, Tan was one of many Hong Kong actors who’d been touted as ‘the next Bruce Lee’. He even adopted the moniker Bruce Liang for a short time. He might not be in Lee’s class as a martial artist but he demonstrates his prowess impressively throughout the movie and it’s easy to see how he earned his nickname of ‘Flash Legs’.
Here, he plays Yun Fei, a gifted young Shaolin disciple tasked with tracking down the traitorous Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien of Game of Death) and putting his reign of terror to an end. Along the way he teams up with some men who have their own reasons for wanting to see Shao-Feng’s downfall. These include a wandering swordsman (Wei Yang), and a scholar played by Woo himself.
The plot is predictable enough, a standard revenge yarn with common kung fu themes of honour and brotherhood but it is hugely enjoyable and the action sequences are simply superb with Woo’s signature style beginning to emerge alongside obvious influences such as Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and his own mentor Chang Cheh, who John Woo assisted in the making of such Cantonese classics as The Water Margin and Boxer from Shantung.
I remember seeing Hand of Death years ago in the form of a grainy pan and scanned video with atrocious dubbing. It’s great to see it has been given such an impressive restoration.
Three years later Woo turned to the wuxia genre for Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
Expect an almost insane number of slick and stylish sword fights, kickass kung fu, ninjas (or a Chinese variation of them), plenty of twists and bucketloads of booze. Drink even plays a vital part in one fight sequence, where bad guy Pai Chung-Tong (Hoi Sang Lee) repeatedly spits some unspecified alcohol over rows of candles to achieve an effect of a small flamethrower during a particularly fierce clash.
There are a number of comedy elements on display too, although Woo himself wasn’t that keen on this aspect of his film. Perhaps the funniest moment is a sword fight featuring Sleeping Wizard (Chin Yuet-sang), a narcoleptic elite bodyguard, whose technique includes taking regular power-naps during combat. Very silly stuff but I found it hilarious.
The sound effects weren’t so enjoyable. Even by the standards of this kind of film, these verged on the annoying at times with the near constant exaggerated clanging of swords and every kung fu move accompanied by a loud swoosh.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry, though, is generally very entertaining with relentless action. It’s another step for Woo in the direction of his so-called ‘heroic bloodshed’ movies which attracted worldwide interest after the success of his 1986 hit A Better Tomorrow. They may be separated by centuries but the wushu warriors portrayed in Last Hurrah have much in common with the trenchcoat wearing, gun touting gangsters of Hard Boiled and The Killer.
Extras include optional English subtitles, new audio commentaries on both films by martial-arts cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema (who make a good double act); interviews with director John Woo and a limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Matthew Thrift (first 2000 copies only).
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.