Written by Chan Kiu Ying, Koo Siu Wah, and Ronny Yu
Directed by Ronny Yu
Starring Chow Yun Fat, Leung Ka Yan, Eddy Ko, Mui Sang Fan, and Cherie Chung
Released by: Fortune Star/20th Century Fox
My Advice: Definitely worth a rental. For those a little more enamored of the fu, it’s certainly original enough to buy.
In the backwaters of China, standard “modern” conveniences were often a bit hard to come by in the early 20th century. Postal delivery, handled by the government in more populous corners of the world, was mostly a freelance affair. When freelance letter-carrier Brother Ma (Leung Ka Yan) grudgingly agrees to deliver a gift to a rival warlord on behalf of the local rich guy, things almost immediately get strange. Ma will not undertake the journey alone — he gets a thief (Yuen Yat Chor), an explosives expert (Fan Mui Sang), and a gambler (Chow Yun-Fat) to help him navigate the treacherous, bandit-infested countryside on the way to meet said warlord.
[ad#longpost]With all the introducing of various characters, the story takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, it gathers momentum quickly. The quartet are constantly set upon by bandits, corrupt officials, kung-fu ice-skaters (I kid you not), and a mysterious ninja. Because everything is better with ninjas. Except pirates, who are in all ways superior to pajama-clad Asian assassins. While protecting the precious parcel (which they’re naturally not allowed to open), the group wades through action piece after action piece, kicking ass with a mixture of kung fu, dynamite, and a bevy of dirty tricks and hidden weapons.
The actors all deliver solid performances, though Chow Yun Fat (advertised as the star but at best an equal partner in an ensemble cast) stands a bit above, as does Fan Mui Sang as the explosives expert. Unfortunately, we don’t get a great deal of character development, as the script moves rather quickly from introducing the characters briefly to the long trek overland peppered with fight sequences. While depth of character development has never exactly been a hallmark of the kung fu theater set, it would have been nice to see as these characters practically beg for more detail.
The fight choreography here is simply stunning, with some truly original moments. While a few ideas come across as silly in passing description here, most are carried off very well. The “kung fu ice-capades” sequence, when the group is attacked while crossing a frozen river, could have been played for pratfalls and laughs, but instead is a taut, insanely fast exchange, shot with quick cuts and close-in camera angles to better convey the sense of panic and disorientation of the heroes. About the only action sequence that elicited an eye-roll from me was the ninja’s bizarre burrowing attacks in the final few fight sequences. I was okay with the cheesy camera-trick disappearances and smoke bombs, but seeing the ninja buzzing around underground, leaving a little mounded trail a’la Bugs Bunny, just felt jarringly out of place given the rest of the movie. All of our heroes fight distinctively, from the Brother Ma’s straight-up kung fu stylings to Chow Yun Fat’s hidden weapons and scarf-fighting. The ninja, aside from the aforementioned digging silliness, utilizes all the weird exotic weaponry and flash-powder stunts that we’ve come to know and love. All in all, the fighting here is incredibly good, which is of course the hallmark of quality fu films.
As with all the Fortune Star releases I’ve seen so far, the transfer looks and sounds great. The original widescreen aspect is preserved, and the print has been cleaned up to be free of graininess or other defects that one might expect from a kung fu film of this age. Alas, also as with all the Fortune Star releases I’ve seen, the disc has bupkis in the way of special features. There are a couple of trailers, but that’s it. It’d be nice to see them make the effort to track down some actors or crew to talk about the film a bit, or, better yet, find an expert on Hong Kong action cinema and give me a commentary track. I realize the Fortune Star line is all about volume and affordability, but would it kill ’em to throw us just a tiny little bone here?