Thursday, 26 January 2012

Three Brothers, A Retrospective - Part 3: Dragons Forever (1988)


Now it's time for the third and final part of my retrospective look at three key films starring the wonderful trio of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. In my previous installment I talked about Wheels on Meals and despite the many times I've seen it, I was still flawed by how amazing the action scenes were and the fight between Jackie and Benny Urquidez is by far one of my all time favourite martial arts fight scenes. This week I'm going to take a long look at the final film to star all three of the Three Brothers; Dragons Forever.

With Wheels On Meals having been a massive success, Golden Harvest thought they would try and continue the trend and put together another film using most of the same cast and crew. A story was put together which would see the three leads play against type. Jackie, who often portrayed himself as the underdog hero fighting for justice would play a skirt chasing lawyer who had no qualms about using under handed tactics to win cases. Sammo, who often played timid characters during this point in his career was a conniving arms dealer and Yuen Biao would play a cat burglar who was mentally disturbed. An interesting idea and one which ultimately works in the film's favor.


Jackie plays Jackie. Yep, that's his character's name. A lawyer who is having lunch with a female witness for a case he is working on when a group of thugs turn up and try and intimidate her. Jackie leaps straight to the rescue and makes quick work of the attackers. Right from the off director Sammo is establishing the kind of action we will be seeing. This time the style of choreography seems to concentrate more on impactful and painful looking kicks and punches as opposed to the lightening fast exchanges used in Wheels on Meals. It's not a particularly long scene but Jackie gets to indulge in his penchant for using props by throwing chairs and leaping across tables.

After he rescues the witness she slaps him in the face for not acting quick enough. It's here that Jackie's character isn't as morally upright as his other characters which he's played before and promptly slaps her back and verbally berates her before walking off. Later we see him in court representing a criminal who he is able to get off charges. While the previous scene established he's not the typical boy scout, we see here that Jackie's character is conflicted as he is visibly upset at having to defend such a repugnant character. He even goes so far as to assault his client when the Judge's back is turned. Realistically there's now way a lawyer would be able to do something like that but of course this film has one of the most lenient and tolerable judge's I've seen so who am I to argue.


Leaving the courtroom he then has a meeting with another client. A local chemical company is being sued by a fishery over allegations that they have polluted the water. Jackie is hired by the chemical company in hopes that he can convince the fishery to settle out of court. He holds a meeting with the owner of the fishery Miss Yip played by Deannie Yip. As you would expect she has no interest in settling and vows to take the case through. It's during this scene that Jackie meets Ling played by Pauline Yeung. Ling is an environmental scientist who intends to testify on Yip's behalf, she's also her cousin. After a swift rebuke from her, Jackie decides to put a plan together that will hopefully result in the case never being put in front of a judge.

He recruits his friend Wong Fei-Hung (Sammo) we're introduced to his character in a scene in which he is selling guns to a pair of criminals intent on robbing a bank. When it turns out that they won't pay him, Sammo doesn't hesitate to knock them on their arses. One thing has to be said about Dragons Forever is that it doesn't waste too much time getting to the next action sequence. Sammo knew what his audience liked (most of the time) and giving them lots of action to watch was one thing he was certain on. The fight scene itself is short but it's tightly edited and there's some nasty throws being used. 


Wong meets up with Jackie who gives him the task of getting close to Miss Yip in an attempt to try and coerce her into selling her business. He wastes no time by moving in next door and introducing himself to her when he pretends to mistake her house for the one he just moved into. I liked this scene because right away you can see that both Sammo and Deannie have good chemistry. Both actors had previously worked together on Carry On, Pickpocket (A great 80's action comedy that's worth seeing) and The Owl Vs Bumbo (A not so great 80's comedy that isn't worth seeing) so they seemed to play off each other quite well. Not long after we are introduced to the final of the three leads Tung Te-Biao played by, you guessed it, Yuen Biao.

He returns to his home during the night to find someone has forced their way inside. Climbing through the roof he attacks his would be assailant only to discover it's Jackie. Right away we know there's something not quite right about him. It turns out that Jackie wants to use Tung's skills as a burglar to plant a bug in Miss Yip's home in the hopes of being able to gather some information that he may be able to use against her in the case. Tung reluctantly agrees and soon we see him infiltrating Miss Yip's apartment. Unfortunately Wong spots him and watches him closely.


Inside we get to see Biao's talents for acrobatic tumbling as he tries to find a good hiding place for the listening device. One thing I found odd was despite being a professional burglar instead of choosing dark clothing that would avoid him from being seen, he decides to wear a bright yellow jumper. Of course, it was the 80's and primary colours were worn a lot and also Biao's character is kind of a nutjob so I suppose it makes a little sense but not much. Wong rushes in thinking he's robbing the place and they have a little fight. This time it's mostly played for laughs with Yuen trying his best to wriggle out of Wong's grasp but his escape is cut short when Yip smashes a vase over his head.

Jackie bails him out prison and bumps into Yip and Ling. Jackie tries to ask Ling out and again and she agrees. Thinking she would be able to get more information out of him. This is where we get a real treat of a scene. Jackie is busy entertaining her at his home and he soon finds out that Tung is hiding in his bedroom. Not long after Wong shows up and is forced to hide them both or his whole plan would be exposed. We get an excellent mix of action and physical comedy and what I like most about this scene is that you could show this to anyone from any country, regardless if they could understand the dialogue and they would completely understand what was happening. That's one of the toughest aspects of comedy in getting it to translate and physical comedy always works and this particular scene is no exception.


Later on we see the three of them trying to let bygones be bygones and go for a drink. Here we meet the main villain played by Yuen Wah. After some expository dialogue we get yet another fight scene when a rival gang come in and try to kill Wah. You get the feeling that with each scene that Sammo is building them up and up. Each fight becomes faster. harder. more painful. So you can imagine by the time we reach the end just how brutal things are going to get. The next day Jackie takes Ling for dinner on a yacht. It's not long before Jackie receives a visit from what I like to call the Big Bad Guy Brigade. Which consists of such Hong Action bad guys like Dick Wei, Chung Fat, Fung Hak-On, Lau Kar-Wing, Wong Yu, Meng Hoi and a few others.

The choreography is pure Jackie all the way. You see him climbing up stairs, leaping across tables, rolling across the ground. Everything you expect Jackie to be doing in a fight like this, he does and it's a great fight, especially given the talent involved. At this point though, this is when we get into cheesy Hong Kong romantic territory, which isn't something I care for much. We get the montage of Jackie and Ling going on various dates  to the soundtrack of a Canto Ballad. It always annoys me when this happens but since it's over fairly quickly it's not as irritating as I usually find it.


Sadly Jackie's happiness doesn't last long when Tung tries to kill Ling. The reason for this is that two scenes were filmed in which Tung see's a psychiatrist played by Stanley Fung. The second scene he is being robbed and the robber, with Tung thinking he is his shrink tells him to kill her. So him suddenly wanting to do that seems a little out of context with the removal of those scenes. As a result of Tung's attempted murder, Jackie's plot to get information and Wong's plan to get Yip to sell her business are exposed. As you'd expect the women aren't happy and this causes the three friends to duke it out Hong Kong action style.

I loved this fight, still do. It's so perfectly done and it's such a shame we never saw all three do more of this in other films. Their timing is spot on and is a hell of a thing to see these three "brothers" fight each other in such a vicious way. This ends up causing a rift between them and they go their separate ways. Wong however still feels guilty and confronts Miss Yip about his feelings. After accepting his apology he agrees to help her get evidence that will help her win the case in court.


Tung agrees to help and they both sneak into the factory and split up. Wong finds a hidden entrance and discovers that the factory is in fact a front for heroin manufacturing. He is discovered almost immediately and is captured. Meanwhile Jackie is in court and is about to cross-examine Ling only to ask her to confess her love for him. Now at this point another other judge would not be tolerating such ridiculous behaviour but since we have the friendliest movie judge ever he just goes with it. As you'd expect it goes exactly the way you think it will but once we've got that out of the way Tung meets up with Jackie and tells him Wong is in trouble.

With Ling in toe they head to factory and find their way into the heroin plant. At this point the film wastes no time in giving what the audience has been waiting for. Jackie and Biao leap into action. Biao goes up against the man who would go on to take Dick Wei's mantle for Villain of Choice in the 90's, Billy Chow and Jackie has to take in Yuen Wah. They're both excellent fights and are certainly more hard-hitting then anything that has come before, especially when one stunt sees a poor bloke slam his head and neck into the floor. How they didn't get seriously damaged by that bump I have no idea.


Yet, all this does is lead us right into the Pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance when we get round two between Jackie and his opponent from Wheels on Meals, Benny Urquidez. Benny is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of Jackie's greatest on-screen adversaries. They may have only faced each other twice but both times have left such an impact on the face of martial arts cinema that it's easy to see why many fans around the world cite them as some of the best examples of screen fighting ever produced.

What makes this fight different to Wheels on Meals is fundamentally choreography. While that film had them throwing lightening fast exchanges, this time they're out to really hurt each other with stiff kicks to the chest and some nasty fists to the face. Each move looks like it hurts and it should as they really had to push the bar further because they had set it so high last time. I already explained Benny is the real deal and even he was impressed with how well Jackie handled himself the few times they actually made contact during some of the moves


As you'd expect after getting a hell of a beat down Jackie is able to push himself beyond the limit and manages to get the victory over Benny. With the bad guys defeated and everyone saved that ends the film. So too does my retrospective on three films that are some of the best in which all three stars have ever made. Sadly this was to be their last collaboration. There was attempt made in the 90's to get all three involved in a film but Jackie couldn't be a part of it and so that film later become Don't Give A Damn, with Takeshi Kineshiro filling in Jackie's original role.

If you're wondering when the film came out if it was a hit, well, this may shock you but no it wasn't. Expert Bey Logan theorizes the reason the film didn't live up to expectations had a lot to do with the characters they played. Hong Kong audiences were very particular about the roles their stars played and weren't very receptive whenever they tried to play against type. Still, all parties involved should be proud of the final film.

So that's that on my three part retrospective, it's been an absolute blast going back and watching these bona fide genre classics and being able to share my thoughts with you. I hope you enjoyed reading these articles as much as I enjoyed writing them. Until next time, my friends.

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