Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Jetruary #3: Dragon Fight (1989)

Jetruary rolls on and this week I'll be taking a look at one of Jet's less talked about films Dragon Fight. Directed by Billy Tang, shot entirely on location in San Francisco and co-starring Dick Wei, Stephen Chow and the woman that would go on to be Jet's wife Nina Li, it's odd that not many fans of Hong Kong action cinema let alone Jet's fan base ever talk about it. This is the main reason why I decided to review it and share my thoughts on how the film turned out.

Jet plays Jimmy, a member of a Wu Shu team visiting San Francisco. Here we see that his fellow performer and close friend Tiger (Dick Wei) is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his place in life. When waiting at the airport to fly home Tiger makes a run for it, hoping to start a new life in America. Jimmy chases after him and after a brief confrontation Jimmy decides to let him stay. Unfortunately Tiger kills a policeman who asks him for ID and Jimmy is blamed as Tiger was carrying his wallet and dropped it at the scene. This forces Jimmy to go on the run from the law and is taken in by Andy(Chow), a young Chinese man who works in his father's grocery store. Meanwhile Tiger finds work as bodyguard and hitman for a local crime lord and it's not long before the two former friends are forced to confront one another once and for all.

Much like Jet's earlier films like Shaolin Temple and Born To Defend, Dragon Fight is a decent showcase of the young actor's abilities. You can see him growing as an actor and also becoming more confident in terms of on screen fighting. He seems to have reigned in his overly fast and hard to keep up fighting style and become more concentrated and focused. It's great to watch these films back to back and see just how Jet was shaping himself as a performer on camera. His straight guy persona melds well with funny man Stephen Chow. This was very early on in Chow's career before he become Hong Kong's premiere comedic actor and film maker in the 1990s. Here he displays a good amount of boyish charm and charisma that he would use to great affect in his later films. Both actors have good solid chemistry and it's a shame that they never got to make another movie together when they were both huge stars later on.

Dick Wei actually gets the rare opportunity to do some acting as opposed to standing around and looking mean. He portrays Tiger with a fair amount of sympathy as well as menace that it's hard to believe that few directors ever wanted to him to be the good guy in their films during this era. He tries to convey that Tiger is tired and frustrated with being just a simple Wu Shu performer and strives to have more. He's also an extremely capable fighter which allows him to get his foot in the door of the San Francisco underworld. This further hits home Tiger's fall from grace as he becomes more greedy.

Tiger's character arc contrasts very well with that of Jimmy's. Stranded in America with no way to get home he takes a job working for Andy's father. He's happy with such a humble life and hopes that one day he can return home to his family. It's not done in an overly complex way. This is 80's Hong Kong Action Cinema we're talking about here. Yet the simplicity in which the story plays out is commendable. Other actors featured are Nina Li who doesn't get to do much except turn up now and then to move the plot forward. I wouldn't even go far as to call her a love interest as Jet's character displays no romantic feelings toward her at any time during the film. Prolific actor and producer Henry Fong turns up as Tiger's gangster boss and plays the typical hot headed triad.

All the cast do very well and I had no issues with the way they played them. There was very little over acting on anyone's part and it made a change from all the angry shouting and screaming in Born To Defend. Nobody would take home any awards for what's in here but to see a cast that actually looks like they want to be there is a refreshing change. Jet especially looks like he's enjoying himself as you could tell throughout Born To Defend despite the smiles he wasn't having a good time.

Backing up the decent acting performances is some good solid action. While not as densely packed as Jet's earlier films, there's enough here to keep your interest. Dick Wei himself was responsible for the choreography and he does a very good job. You can definitely feel the influence of Sammo Hung in the way he put them together. Jet and Dick get to really show their stuff. Dick especially indulges in his love for fancy kicks and Jet gets to do some really impressive punching combinations. There's a nicely done sequence in the the beginning when both of them perform a traditional Wu Shu display and Dick looks completely natural with Jet. That's one the most admirable things regarding Dick Wei, no matter who went up against in a film he always looked good. Sometimes with martial arts films you can sometimes see that certain actors don't really blend well when fighting. Moves looks hesitant or sluggish and the choreography is very tame.

Wei however could tussle with the best of them regardless and he always managed to be in some very good fight scenes. His fight with Jackie Chan in Heart of Dragon is an excellent example of two screen fighters hitting the same wave length and putting on one hell of a show. Dragon Fight isn't much different and his fight at the finale against Jet is very well done. It's not to the level of the afore mentioned Chan/Wei throw down but it's worth seeing without a doubt. If only for the fact that it's the only time the two of them ever fought each other on screen.

Apart from empty handed combat Wei also throws in a whole lot of weapons fighting toward the end of the film. Jet gets to use a bo staff and shows off some flashy combinations and do some nicely timed tumbling. Wei doesn't really do any of that, he just gets to kick people in the face but it's what he was best at so he knew when and how to play to his own strengths. One thing I would like to mention about the fights are the brilliantly executed fist exchanges. Wei and Jet show their flair for striking, jabbing, blocking and parrying and it's here that Sammo's influence becomes apparent. With some quick elbows and punches to the face you can see that Wei was trying his best to emulate the type of action his contemporaries were doing in their own fight scenes. He achieves that here and you have to wonder why he never did the action directing on any other action films he had been a part of.

Dragon Fight is a solid entry into the canon of 80's Hong Kong action pictures and should be viewed by everyone who is a fan of that era of film making, Jet Li, Dick and even Stephen Chow. It's got a by the numbers story elevated by it's decent acting performances punctuated by some nicely done fight choreography. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone who has not seen it as you may well be more then satisfied with what it has to offer.

That's it for this week's entry into Jetruary. Next week will be my last review concentrating on Jet Li, after which I'll be looking at other movies. Till next week!

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