LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY Blu-ray Review: Heroic Brotherhood, Clashing Swords
Directed by John Woo in 1979. Criterion's new disc looks properly awesome.
"I don't need a sword to beat up a dog." (Note: the human variety of a dog.)
Last Hurrah for Chivalry
The film is now available to pre-order on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, ahead of its March 14, 2023, release.
Young John Woo had a way with words, as he vividly demonstrates in the original script for the eighth feature film that he directed, released in 1979.
In a newly-recorded video included with Criterion's new Blu-ray, novelist and Hong Kong movie expert Grady Hendrix provides astute, well-informed context in less than nine minutes, which is amazing in itself, noting that, as opposed to other members of the Hong Kong "New Wave" in the 80s, filmmakers like Tsui Hark and Ann Hui, who were educated in the West, Woo learned filmmaking from working on Hong Kong film sets and making them himself, beginning in 1969 when he made his first short.
Arriving very late to the Hong Kong movie scene, just after the Handover in 1997, my own acquaintance with Woo's films came from watching his initial forays into Hollywood (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), which pushed me into seeing his more readily-available Hong Kong films; watching 1986's A Better Tomorrow prompted me to create my own movie site, named after that film -- thank you to every one of the 14 people who read abtdvd.com at the time.
In my initial rush of enthusiasm for all things Hong Kong, I'm afraid that watching Last Hurrah for Chivalry on a rental DVD shipped by Netflix did not leave much impression upon me. Thus, watching the 2K digital restoration, under exclusive license from Fortune Star to Criterion, was an entirely new experience.
In a word: fantastic! In more words: upscaled via my 4k disc player and 4K TV, the colors look vivid, the flesh tones appear accurate, the blacks look suitably dark, the print itself looks beautifully life-like, in that 35mm look from the late 70s that I favor, and the sound booms. I absolutely love the Golden Harvest foley work -- the clashing swords clank and ker-plug with resounding pitch-perfection and fabrics rustle like fabrics should sound in continuous motion.
The disc includes the Grady Hendrix feature, as well as an original-release trailer, running an astounding five (5) minutes, that trumpets the director's connection to Jackie Chan -- they worked together on 1976's The Hand of Death -- among other things, plus a brief audio interview of Woo, conducted by Robert K. Elder in 2003/2004. An included booklet features an excellent essay by scholar Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park that covers Woo's early career and its place in Hong Kong and world cinema; it contains even more spoilers than I have here, but it's definitely an enlightening read.
Beyond the lovely picture and the choice of audio tracks -- two Cantonese tracks (5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, uncompressed monaural soundtracks). two English-dubbed tracks (only if you must) -- the new English subtitles are beautifully written, as you can see if you compare them with the English-dubbed tracks.
Discounting my initial viewing more than 20 years ago, it took me a couple viewings to get fully caught up with the story that Woo weaves around the plethora of action sequences, featuring a massive sword battle to kick things off, followed by a steady string of varied and often extended action scenes, involving hands, fists, legs, more swords, other sharp instruments, blowing fire, a sleeping Buddha, and so forth.
The film begins by establishing Lord Kao Pang (Lau Kong) as the owner of a hillside villa, from which he looks out upon his property, surrounded by his faithful minions.
His wedding night is smashed, however, when his sworn enemy, the mighty, swaggering Pak Chung-tong (Lee Hoi-Sang), crashes the party and kills nearly everyone, claiming that Lord Kao's father is the one who stole it from him in the first place. Wounded badly, Lord Kao barely escapes, and immediately swears revenge, but his remaining friend/second-in-command convinces him to hire professionals in his stead.
Chang San (Wai Pak) is an incredible swordsman, but sticks close to home so he can care for his mother and sister (Yik Ka). Lord Kao befriends him in a moment of emotional need, prompting Chan San to exact revenge on Lord Kao's behalf. He joins up with a drifter named Tsing Yi (Damian Lau Chung-Yan), who is more interested in wine than women, as he declines the pleading entreaties of a concerned courtesan (Ngai Chau-wah).
Together, Chang San and Tsing Yi have many adventures, becoming closer and more reliant upon each other as true companions. They become heroic brothers as they pursue the evil Pak Chung-tong on behalf of Lord Kao, who is determined to rebuild his enterprise in a manner that is very different from how his father did things. It leads to an impactful conclusion that is built entirely from visual storytelling, emphasizing how the bonds of brotherhood are affected.
The tone wobbles throughout, as Woo includes crowd-pleasing comic bits that tend to undermine his more serious intentions to a certain extent. The action sequences, directed by Fun Hak-On (1987's The Magnificent Warriors), who also plays a role as a deadly combatant, are quite good, though, and the cumulative effect is extremely pleasing.
Summing up: The film is entirely engaging, if a bit messy, while pointing forward to what John Woo would accomplish in the coming decade as he developed his skills as a director. Recommended.
Credits thanks to Hong Kong Movie Database.