Knockabout (1979) & Dreadnaught (1981)

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This week, a look at a couple of new Eureka Classics Blu-rays that are released today. First up is Knockabout, an early example of Hong Kong’s kung fu comedy craze, and the first film to star Sammo Hung (who also directed it) and Yuen Biao together.

Bryan Leung Kar-Yan is Dai Pao, while Yuen Biao, in his first leading role, is his brother Yi Pao. They’re are a pair of low-grade grifters who would happily rip each other off if the chance arose. They do enjoy the odd success – like conning a gold dealer who is equally greedy and gullible, but they pick the wrong mark in Old Fox (played by Lau Kar-Wing in a not terribly convincing grey wig).

Outwitted by the older man, they seek revenge by attempting to beat him up. This is another bad idea and results in him giving them both black eyes. Sensing that learning a mastery of kung fu could come in handy whenever their scams fail, they offer to become his students. Old Fox is reluctant but eventually relents, enlisting the brothers to help him in his struggle against some longstanding enemies.

Old Fox really is far from the kindly and virtuous master that we usually meet in kung fu movies, as the brothers will soon discover to their cost.

The balance between comedy and martial arts tips in favour of the former for much of the movie with Yuen Biao and Leung Kar-yan making for a highly likeable double act.

The role of Yi Pao was intended to launch Yuen Biao into the kind of stardom that his fellow Peking Opera School pals Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were already experiencing after box office hits like Drunken Master and Enter the Fat Dragon.

Biao did go on to enjoy a long and successful career, without ever reaching the heights of his two ‘brothers’. His acrobatic cartwheels, kicks and backflips are a true joy to watch here, and Sammo Hung’s Beggar putting him through his paces with a skipping rope is one of the great martial arts training sequences. Sammo, incidentally, is predictably good in the role of the jovial beggar, a man with a pet monkey and some kiss ass monkey kung fu moves. As for ‘Beardy’ Leung, despite having never studied any martial arts, he looks pretty accomplished in his fight scenes.

The cast are all in good form actually, Karl Maka’s memorable cameo as Captain Baldy being only one of many highlights. The movie is a delight which keeps getting better and better. Its ferocious finale is one of the longest in Hong Kong action movie history and entirely justifies its length.

Next up, another kung fu cult favourite, this time one directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary action choreographer of The Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yuen Woo-ping plunges us straight into the action here with an eruption of mayhem in a teahouse, which leaves a number of police officers and the wife of a fearsome criminal dead.

That criminal, known as White-Fronted Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee), seeks out an old pal who lets him hide out with a theatrical troupe he is involved with. It’s here his path crosses with Little Gueng (Yuen Biao), a laundry worker who is scared of dogs; scared of the men who refuse to pay their laundry bills; and even more than a little scared of his domineering big sister – who beats him up because he’s so hopeless at collecting debts. Needless to say, even though he doesn’t know the true identity of the troupe’s newcomer, he’s terrified of White-Fronted Tiger. Worse still, the psychotic wrongdoer takes an immediate dislike to him.

Maybe Gueng’s best pal Leung Foon (Bryan Leung Kar-yan) can persuade his master Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) to teach the fearful young man the fighting skills required to take on the man that Gueng calls Painted Face.

Nobody could ever accuse Yuen Woo-ping of being scared to shift tone. Dreadnaught begins like a Chinese version of a spaghetti western, then switches into slapstick mode soon after. There is some superb physical comedy on display, such as Gueng demonstrating his unorthodox kung fu method of drying laundry – later referenced by Joel Schumacher in Batman Forever – and also some less amusing broad Hong Kong humour, although I did laugh at one visual gag involving some incompetent police officers drawing the wrong conclusion about a dead man covered by a blanket.

There are also elements of the buddy movie, while the final third of the film strays into serial killer territory – and it is bizarre that a movie with cross-eyed cops and men with weird hair sprouting from unsightly facial warts also manages to feature a genuinely unsettling scene when Leung Foon clashes with White-Fronted Tiger.

Consistently entertaining, Dreadnaught also marked the final time that Kwan Tak-hing portrayed Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung – a man also portrayed onscreen by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The actor bowed out on a high on what is said to have been his 77th time in the role. No, that’s not a typo.

Tak-hing, who was in his mid-seventies during filming, even features prominently in the film’s standout scene, a long brawl between two Lion Dance teams that brilliantly showcases Woo-ping’s virtuoso choreography skills.

This Eureka Classics releases of Knockabout and Dreadnaught are their UK debuts on Blu-ray, both in brand new 2K restorations.

Special features on both include limited edition O-Card slipcases featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]; reversible sleeve design featuring original poster artwork; new feature length audio commentaries by Frank Djeng & Michael Worth, and new feature length audio commentaries by Mike Leeder & Arne Venema, plus collector’s booklets featuring new writing by James Oliver.

For more on Knockabout, click here.

For more on Dreadnaught, click here.

Goodbye, Jordan Mooney

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There’s a story in Jordan Mooney’s 2019 book Defying Gravity (written with Cathi Unsworth) about going to see David Bowie at the Brighton Dome in 1973 during his Ziggy Stardust tour.

She’d queued up all night for tickets and then thought long and hard about what to wear on the big night – which turned out to be a Biba jacket, Oxford bags and towering gold platforms with her razor-cut hair coloured pink and red. ‘I don’t like to boast, but I looked so fucking good that night, it’s untrue.’

While the band were onstage, the young Jordan made her way down to the front and at an opportune moment showered the singer with a handful of cherry blossoms picked from a tree she’d climbed at the end of the street where she lived in her home town of Seaford. This was appropriate as the singer had recently been photographed in a Kansai Yamamoto satin suit that featured that flower.

As the petals fluttered down, Bowie leaned down and took the cherry blossom girl’s hand. During the rise and rise of Ziggymania, this must have been a staggeringly exciting moment for the teenager. He even asked if he could have her earring, which she’d fashioned out of a starling’s feather and some strategically placed pearls.

I’d guess that every other fan in the hall would have happily whipped it off and handed it over but she shook her head and told him, ‘No.’

And why should she just give something like that away just because it was Bowie doing the asking?

The next time the pair crossed paths was at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Bowie was hosting a swanky party to publicise Just A Gigolo, a film that Bowie would later describe in NME as, ‘my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one.’ Jordan, meanwhile, was in town for a screening of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, which was being being shown as part of International Critics’ Week.

This time round, she did agree to the request and he didn’t ask her for anything bar her presence.

Did she upstage him? Very probably, hence him pulling the face. I’d say Jordan 2 Bowie 0.

In Jubilee, Jordan played Amyl Nitrate, a part specially written for her by Jarman, the man who dubbed her ‘the original Sex Pistol’.

Here she is performing Rule Britannia – well, kind of, as it’s Suzi Pinns supplying the vocals – this supposedly being England’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest that year. And which would likely have scored nil points but never mind.

Jordan (Pamela Rooke): 23 June 1955 – 3 April 2022.