Arrow Video: Knockabout (1979) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Arrow Video
In recent years, Arrow Video and other boutique labels across the globe began turning their attention towards the work of legendary Hong Kong martial artist, film director, actor and choreographer Sammo Hung.  The grandchild of martial arts actress Chin Tsi-ang and film director Hung Chung-ho, Sammo Hung was born into the very industry in which he would become one of its most skillful masters and teachers.  A child actor who worked his way up including but not limited to working for Shaw Brothers, Sammo Hung eventually began working for Raymond Chow’s company Golden Harvest (home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise) where he found some of his greatest successes.
Having amassed a reputation as Hong Kong’s greatest choreographer, with his fourth feature in the director’s chair Knockabout, Sammo Hung decided to give his colleague and friend Yuen Biao a shot in his first leading onscreen role in a move that shot the actor to superstardom. 
Brothers Yipao (Yuen Biao) and Taipao (Leung Kar-Yan) wander the streets of Hong Kong hustling, wheeling and dealing their way through life including but not limited to conning banks and casinos out of money before being forced to fight their way out.  

On one of their schemes, they mess with the wrong man when they cross paths with martial arts master Chia Wu Dao (longtime Shaw Brothers choreographer Lau Kar-Wing) who they hastily convince to become their new trainer in hand-to-hand combat.  But after a chance witnessing of Dao murdering a policeman before hunting down the two brothers, Yipao goes into hiding and seeks the help of a heavy-set local beggar (played by Sammo Hung himself) to learn the ways of the monkey fist form of martial arts.  The question is will it be enough to defeat the murderous and nefarious Dao?

A masterwork of choreography that is at once stunning and playfully slapstick, sometimes channeling both energies at once, combined with the Mo Lei Tau sense of humor which played excellently to Biao and Hung’s onscreen strengths, Knockabout is a spectacular action comedy that’s at once deliriously entertaining and genuinely thrilling.  While Hung was already an established actor, stuntman and choreographer, it was the pairing with Biao who was then-unknown at the time that shot the film to new action-adventure heights.  Stemming from the promise of the Shaw Brothers films while finding its own footing with the new Golden Harvest company that would produce such legendary genre fare as Enter the Dragon and years later Riki Oh: The Story of Ricky, Knockabout represents one of the company’s finest offerings that still has the ability to charm and entertain martial arts movie fans.

Shot handsomely in panoramic widescreen by eventual The Prodigal Son cinematographer Ricky Lau, replete with the trademark fast zooms and whip pans Shaw Brothers and Wuxia pictures have become known for and aided by an appropriately comical/dramatic score by Frankie Chan, the look and feel of the period martial arts film is both scenic, tense and eventually playful.  Take for instance the use of editing during a battle utilizing the monkey fist style and the soundtrack superimposes sounds of monkey sounds while Hung and Biao grit their teeth in full monkey mode.  It’s a style of humor that flirts with silent comedy in the middle of an already tense action sequence.  Edited brilliantly by Peter Cheung, the ornate and complicated choreography comes at us fast and furious but with a winking eye letting you know its in good fun.

Sammo Hung introduces himself gradually into the picture and is both the film’s comic relief and eventually the voice of reason and is quite hilarious (and awesome) here as the lowly goofy beggar who is actually a martial arts master.  The film also plays heavily to the comic duo talents of Yuen Biao and costar Leung Kar-Yan as the two wisecracking wheeler-dealing brothers as well as their skills for action choreography.  And of course Lau Kar-Wing makes Chia Wu Dao into an incredible, remorseless adversary who will quite literally stop at nothing to cover his tracks before moving onto his next ruse.  All of the performers across the board give top notch action-comedy performances that round out Knockabout as a, yes, hilarious but ultimately exhilarating thriller.

Released theatrically in Hong Kong as well as in a reedited version for international audiences, Knockabout was a major hit.  Taking in close to $3 million in HK, the film immediately established Yuen Biao as a new action movie superpower to be reckoned with and Sammo Hung as one of the martial arts film medium’s most important purveyors.  Soon after they would reunite on the renowned actioner The Prodigal Son and with the Golden Harvest company proved you could still make big martial arts action comedies outside of the Shaw Brothers system.  Seen now, Knockabout is a splendid, still riotously funny and edge-of-your-seat thrilling action hand-to-hand combat film that ushers in two of the genre’s greatest stars into the forefront of the Hong Kong martial arts movie scene.

--Andrew Kotwicki