Knockabout Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: March 28, 2023
Audio: Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono; Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono; English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (DVD re-release dub) and 1.0 Mono (classic dub, also used for the Export Cut)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 104:44 (Hong Kong Cut), 93:04 (Export Cut)
Director: Sammo Hung
Brothers and partners-in-crime, Yipao (Yuen Biao) and Taipao (Leung Kar-Yan), have made an up-and-down career out of being hustlers, conning everyone from bank tellers to casino dealers. One day, they push their luck with the wrong man, martial arts master Chia Wu-dao (Lau Kar-Wing), but convince him to reluctantly become their teacher in hand-to-hand combat. But, upon learning of Chia's dangerous true nature, Yipao turns to another master: a portly blinking beggar (Sammo Hung) trained in the ways of the monkey fist. Will this new skill defeat Chia's secret snake style? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Trained in the same Peking Opera School, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, and Yuen Wah rose to prominence together in Hong Kong martial arts cinema alongside Raymond Chow & Leonard Ho’s Golden Harvest Studios. While Chan’s stardom tends to eclipse the others’ outside of Asia, all five of the Seven Little Fortunes (a misnomer for a group of up to 14 children) grew into the region’s most influential actors, performers, choreographers, and filmmakers, and continued to support one another throughout their careers, often working on the same movies. Hung’s first film as lead director (not just choreographer or action director) was Iron-Fisted Monk (1977) and Yuen Baio had a supporting role in his directorial follow-up, Warriors Two (1978). Knockabout (aka: The Fearless Master, 1979) marked the first time he and Yuen shared the headline in a Hung-led project (for more on the Seven Little Fortunes, see my review of Dragons Forever ).
Knockabout is a transitional picture – a period piece that still owes a debt to the Shaw Bros. style of filmmaking (especially its structure, where the brash young hero must learn humility, lose a serious fight, and train in a new form in order to get revenge) – and one which fits easily alongside other early Golden Harvest productions, before the studio really started really embracing fantasy films and modern-set crime/combat movies. Hung, Yuen, and their contemporaries would learn to better balance broad comedy and crisp action as their careers evolved, but, even in this raw state, the fully choreographed slapstick sequences work beautifully. Being a Sammo Hung project, the violence levels steadily increase throughout the film, as does the gravity of the situation. Cross-eyed concussions and cartoonishly large head bumps quickly give way to brutal strangulations and merciless murders. The climax is also, of course, a relentless, ever-escalating tour de force.
Knockabout is also significant for pairing Hung and Yuen with another great director/performer, Lau Kar-wing, who had previously directed Hung in Odd Couple (1979). Lau isn’t credited with the choreography here, but the spirit of his work is present, as is that of his brother, Lau Kar-leung, especially Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979), another slapstick comedy about a conman that heavily featured Hóu Quán (monkey fist) style fighting, and Shaolin Mantis (aka: The Deadly Mantis, 1978), in which Kar-wing also dons his signature pipe as a weapon. Though he doesn’t appear for nearly 30 minutes, Lau’s lack of histrionics and stewing villainy anchors the film, contrasting the hamminess of Yuen and forever-bearded co-lead Leung Kar-Yan, who was another product of the Shaw system and appeared also with various Seven Little Fortunes in films, like Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon (1978) and Odd Couple.
In the early home video era, Golden Harvest and Sammo Hung fans had to seek out Knockabout on Hong Kong VHS. A barebones anamorphic DVD was released stateside by Sony in 2004, followed by a UK exclusive, extras-heavy PAL disc from Hong Kong Legends. This Arrow disc is the film’s American Blu-ray debut, but there are also versions available from Eureka in the UK and Sony in Scandinavia (as part of a Kung Fu Classics collection). I assume (but do not know) that the Sony disc and the HD streaming versions are taken from an earlier scan, while Arrow and Eureka probably share a similar or the same new scan. What I do know is that this transfer is a 2K restoration of original film elements provided by Fortune Star. The footage has been used to recreate the original Hong Kong theatrical release and the shorter export cut.
Cinematographer Ricky Lau’s photography emphasizes naturalistic colors and sunny outdoor lighting, which is something I’ve only recently noticed was sort of a Golden Harvest trademark in the studio’s early days (I suppose to set their films apart from Shaw Bros.’ comic-booky colors and stage-sets). His films as director, including the Mr. Vampire movies, tended to be more stylized, but the earthy look serves Knockabout really well and the transfer reproduces the neutral hues and harsh shadows nicely. Texture and film grain are relatively complex and edges are clean without notable haloes or oversoftening. Occasionally, the motion blur and out-of-focus backdrops have a posterized quality, but, overall, this might actually be the best Golden Harvest HD transfer Arrow has produced yet. I (slightly) regret that it didn’t coincide with a flashier movie.
This disc comes loaded with audio options. If you’re watching the Hong Kong cut of the film, you can choose between Cantonese and Mandarin 1.0 mono, an uncompressed version of the Fox DVD’s 5.1 English remix, and the classic English mono dub, all in DTS-HD Master Audio. The export cut only includes the classic English dub. The Cantonese dub performances tend to be a bit broader, in keeping with the film’s overall tone. The Mandarin track is also comparatively muffled, though overall sound quality is similar. The original English dub matches the other two mono tracks in terms of tone and range, but does default to Cantonese in a couple of scenes, assuming you’re watching the Hong Kong edit (I kind of like that they gave Hung a Cockney accent for some reason). I’d recommend avoiding the 5.1 remix entirely – its levels are badly balanced, the stereo/surround elements are awkward, and the performances are terrible. Frankie Chan’s score is a very traditionalist affair, utilizing era-friendly music and plenty of stolen melodies, particularly the ‘coyote howl’ cue from Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly title track.
Commentary with Frank Djeng & Michael Worth (Hong Kong version) – Djeng, the NY Asian Film Festival programmer, leads another fact-filled HK martial arts movie track alongside martial artist/filmmaker/critic Worth. Subject matter covers the careers of the cast & crew (including some dub artists), explanations of regionally-specific jokes, comparisons to similar films from the same filmmakers and studio, and technical breakdowns of some of the more complex sequences.
Commentary with Mike Leeder & Arne Venema (export version) – Casting director/stunt coordinator/producer Leeder and Venema, the critic and director/co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong take their usual approach by focusing more on the historical context of the film and the era surrounding it, as well as personal anecdotes about living in Hong Kong as expats. There is overlap between the two tracks, but not too many.
2006 Hong Kong Legends archive interviews:
Heavy Hitter (7:11, SD) – Sammo Hung chats about a lifetime of working with Yuen Biao and directing him in his first starring role.
Above the Law (7:21, SD) – Actor Bryan “Beardy” Leung Kar-yan breaks down his introduction to the martial arts genre and making Knockabout, emphasizing his affection for Hung and Yuen.
Monkey Magic (25:43) – Grandmaster Chan Sau Chang (aka: The Monkey King) discusses the ins & outs of monkey fist kung fu.
Deleted scene (3:52, HD) – This scene was constructed using footage from a Japanese teaser trailer (it actually explains the films otherwise inexplicable original poster art).
Hong Kong theatrical trailer
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