Sunday, July 25, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY (1979) Dir. John Woo

A young martial artist's master is humiliated by a ferocious kung fu gangster!

The young martial artist must seek revenge, but he knows he's no match for the gangster.

So he looks up the toughest swordsman in town, a fanatically principled young man named Chang.

Chang isn't for sale. But another swordsman, the drunken womanizer Green, may be willing to take on the job.

Chang, Green and others become embroiled in a kung fu street fight for ultimate vengeance!

This is a swordplay and kung fu epic from a filmmaker mostly known for his gun fu classics A BETTER TOMORROW 1 and 2, THE KILLER, BULLET IN THE HEAD, and HARD-BOILED. After HARD-BOILED, he had an intriguing but disapointing dalliance with Hollywood making a couple of okay movies, FACE-OFF and BROKEN ARROW, and some really mediocre films with occasional moments of fun, like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 and PAYCHECK. He also directed a WWII epic with Nic Cage, WINDTALKERS. Windtalkers isn't a bad movie, but it is an underwhelming one. It tries to blend Woo's stylized action with a nominally realistic combat story and it's like oil and water. It does have some tremendously badass action scenes in it, so I would recommend it to hardcore fans.

Recently, Woo went to China to make his five hour epic RED CLIFF, a film of jaw-dropping grandeur and intensity. A lot of people made a big deal out of the over-the-top mayhem of 300, but Red Cliff is the real deal: actual stunt people with a minimum of CG chicanery.

When I watched Red Cliff, I was surprised at how much it was of a piece with Woo's heroic bloodshed masterpieces of the 1980s and 1990s. No guns, the characters aren't criminals, but they have the same values, the same codes of honor and loyalty. In Woo movies, sworn enemies find themselve drawn too each other, almost magnetically, and it sometimes comes across as sexual. Since this attraction is often times between male protagonists this adds a provocative twist to the usual macho heroics of action cinema.

As I watched Red Cliff, I recalled reading about how Woo had made another kung fu and swordplay film that was well-regarded, and so I tracked it down.

LAST HURRAH contains the usual elements, male bonding, honor, sacrifice, but something else I wasn't quite prepared for: insane, punishing, sometimes humorous fight choreography with exquisite timing. It was a near perfect synthesis of martial arts and musicality without quite being a musical. Woo takes the usual martial arts flick staples, vengeance, betrayal, conflict between the older and younger generations, and spins them into a complex web of schemes within schemes.

Red Cliff was also an impressive fight film, but it had a different energy. Red Cliff was a war film. It emphasized the sweep and chaos and mass destruction of large-scale battles with thousands of soldiers. Last Hurrah is more personal, more one-on-one conflict, although there are some impressive brawls involving dozens of fighting men.

At first, this might seem to be the usual case of a kung fu movie with a plot that serves the action, but I found it hypnotic and expertly woven together. In a regular drama, characters speak, and yell and cry and accuse one another with words. In this movie, the fight scenes are themselves intricately worked out dialectics between men who have given themselves over completely to the martial code: to fight to the death, to never back away from a challenge.

Yes, it is insanely melodramatic, and has little to do with how violence works in real life. In real life, violence is awkward, ugly, and leaves people dead or crippled or bewildered and heartbroken. But Woo works in some rather stinging consequences for his characters in all of his movies and LAST HURRAH is no exception.

I have said nothing specific about the plot of this film, which is a good thing. It's best to watch this with the only prior knowledge being that this is an all out action packed kung fu film. The rest you should discover for yourself.

Highly recommended.



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