Fans of Hong Kong martial arts films have long-bemoaned the fact that the city seems to have let this one-time cornerstone genre slip through our fingers, never to be recovered. Save for Donnie Yen, who seems to be singlehandedly keeping things afloat, finding successors to the thrones of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li has proved pretty difficult. Donnie has arguably only a few years left in him, Wu Jing has never quite fulfilled his potential as a bona fide action hero, and the same can be said for Fan Siu Wong, while the younger generation has yet to offer up a genuine "star".
Taking all this into consideration, the young writer/director duo of Derek Kwok (THE PYE DOG, THE MOSS) and Clement Cheng have taken the opposite approach for their latest movie and assembled a cast of aging Shaw Bros alumni, including Leung Siu Lung, Chan Koon Ti, Chan Wai Man and Lo Meng, as well as diminutive actor/composer Teddy Robin, to play out an action-packed comedy of restaurateurs defending their property from encroaching gangsters. But fear not, GALLANTS is so much more than simply COCOON with kung fu, it's a love letter not only to martial arts and its stars of yesteryear, but a reaffirmation that wisdom does not necessarily come with age, and that age itself is an abstract concept. Youthfulness is a state of mind.
Cheung (Wong You Nam) is a fairly inept real estate clerk. His frustrated boss sends him on an extended assignment, to meet with a local landowner as he attempts to retrieve his leased properties. Before he can touch base however, Cheung is accosted by a gang of local thugs, only to be rescued by the elderly Tiger (Leung Siu Lung), whose dazzling martial arts scare the goons away. Enamoured by his rescuer, Cheung follows Tiger back to his restaurant to convince Tiger to teach him. There he meets the chef, Dragon, another aging martial artist and learns they are both pupils of the legendary Master Law (Teddy Robin), whose restaurant they have been looking after since Law slipped into a coma 30 years ago.
Soon enough Cheung ingratiates himself with Tiger and Dragon, and is attracted to Tiger's niece Kwai (Jia Xio Chen) only to discover the landowner is actually Mang (MC Jin), a former classmate he used to bully. Mang has since become a proficient fighter at Pong Ching's Martial Club and is looking for revenge, while Master Pong (Chan Wai Man) seems also to have unsettled scores with Tiger and Dragon, so invites them all to compete in an upcoming contest. Pong's goons inadvertently awaken Master Law from his coma, and the restaurant is swiftly returned to its previous incarnation - The Gate of Law Martial Club, where training begins for a series of decisive stand-offs.
This synopsis doesn't begin to explain the real stories within GALLANTS. These elder statesmen of kung fu have plenty to prove, especially when swept into the conflicts of the younger generation, faced with losing their livelihoods and affronted by the PR hype and marketing spin surrounding Pong Ching's Martial Club. To say these guys are kicking it old school is a massive understatement and there's no way they're giving up without a fight.
Kwok and Cheng's film is an invigorating breath of fresh air that takes a huge gamble on a cast devoid of young, glamorous A-listers, but it's one that pays off handsomely. Not only do these geri-action heroes prove they've still got the moves, the flexibility and the speed they had 30 years ago, but they also make for humorous, endearing and charismatic leading men - not least Teddy Robin, whose post-coma amnesia and playful vulgarity pretty much steal the film away from his combative contemporaries.
While the directors show a real love for these heroes, and while plenty of respect and reverence is paid, they restrain from making GALLANTS simply a checklist of references to classic martial arts movies, letting the film stand tall on its own merits. GALLANTS bounces along with a youthful exuberance and energy that makes other recent martial arts releases like TRUE LEGEND or even BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS seem positively archaic by comparison. As they scramble to emulate Hong Kong's glorious past, GALLANTS plucks the finest fruits from that golden period and pitches them perfectly at today's modern audiences. While you can't teach an old dog new tricks, GALLANTS proves beyond any doubt that the old dogs can still teach the rest of us a thing or two.
Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)