Written by Wong Kai Kei and Lau Tin Chee
Directed by Sammo Hung
Starring Yuen Biao, Leung Kar Yan, and Sammo Hung
Released by: Fortune Star/20th Century Fox
My Advice: Rent it.
Buddies (brothers? this is unclear) Yipao (Biao) and Taipao (Kar Yan) are scam artists extraordinaire. If there’s a way to cheat someone out of a quick yuan, they’ll try it. From the very opening sequence of the film, you get a pretty good feeling for the sort of characters they are — lovably criminal, terribly goofy, and absolutely incapable of reining in their appetites. After making a small fortune swindling a changing house, the two promptly lose all the money, get caught passing counterfeit in a gambling house, and naturally get their asses kicked.
[ad#longpost]Yipao is a capable fighter, but nothing exceptional, while Taipao is totally hopeless. Now battered, broke, and still hungry, they set up to scam a silver-haired gent at the teahouse, only to have their little scam backfire and end up, again, getting pummeled. After accosting their better on the road home and getting pummeled, they plead with Silver Fox (Chia Yung Liu) to be their master. The old man grudgingly accepts.
Immediately, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The old man doesn’t really seem to be interested in training them so much as putting them through grueling physical abuse under the guise of “improving their technique.” There’s the distinct impression that Fox might be a bit of a crook himself. After Yipao and Taipao have trained a bit, they venture into town to find some easy marks and prove their newfound proficiency. It’s here that their little world gets crazier, as police pursue Fox for unnamed crimes, and Fox responds by calling on his pupils to help him murder the officers of the law sent to catch him. As so often happens in a kung fu flick, somebody important dies. This launches the revenge-tale portion of the film, as Yipao is taken in by an unnamed Beggar (Hung) who trains him in a bevy of kung fu styles, notably Monkey Fist, and subjects him to a brutal training regimen in order to prepare him to meet Silver Fox on the field of battle.
Knockabout isn’t going to wow anybody with the story’s originality, pure and simple. Revenge Plot #3b-14 is executed here with indifference. What sets this apart from a dozen similar films is entirely the doing of Sammo Hung. The story is infused with comedy from the very opening moments, and only takes on a serious bent in the last third as the revenge tale comes to its crisis and conclusion. It is the hallmark of Hung’s genius (like his brother-in-arms Jackie Chan) to manage the delicate balance between action and slapstick, keeping the film exciting and rapid-fire while still amusing, without ever becoming so ridiculous that the serious aspects of the story are hurt.
Hung’s other fantastic contribution is the fight choreography. Some of the most original stuff you’re likely to see gets thrown around in the fight sequences here, with some in the training sequences as well. Yuen Biao’s physical talents are absolutely astounding in their own right, but I was absolutely stunned to see Hung hop in and keep up move for move. The jumprope sequence in the training segment is sheer genius, and had to be monstrously hard to perform, as Biao runs through the gamut of Monkey Fist moves while jumping an ever-accelerating rope. While some of these sorts of things are eclipsed by more modern martial arts action flicks, it’s hard to argue against the originality of the sequences circa 1979.
Fortune Star delivers another beautiful looking transfer with solid sound. The English voiceover is actually pretty well done, which is always refreshing, and the subtitles are clear (though not knowing Cantonese, I can’t attest to their accuracy…suffice it to say that they make sense and map pretty closely to the English voiceover dialogue). Again we get no special features aside from trailers, which is disappointing to say the least, but at this point, coming from Fortune Star, it’s not terribly surprising.
Knockabout makes a great rental for fans of action comedy and kung fu. It’s an excellent piece of the Hong Kong cinema historical record, as well, showing Hung in the earliest days of his career behind the camera as a full-on director. While he had extensive experience as a fight choreographer by this point, it was one of the first handful of films in the big chair. It isn’t as great an achievement as some of Hung’s later films (say, Prodigal Son), but it’s still a solid entry to his filmography and a great fun film to watch.