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‘Dragons Forever’ 4K UHD (review)

Dragons Forever is a 1988 martial arts action-comedy directed by and starring Sammo Hung (Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Mr. Nice Guy) alongside Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, Police Story) and Yuen Biao (Righting Wrongs, Once Upon a Time in China).

It represents the last of many collaborations between its stars; collectively known as the “Three Dragons.”

A commercial disappointment in its native Hong Kong, the film enjoys a strong international reputation for its incredible fight scenes featuring the leads who were all working at the top of their powers.

The film is available in both the Blu Ray and 4k UHD formats from 88 Films in the North American and European regions.

Let’s get this out of the way: if you like Hong Kong action films, Dragons Forever is easily worth your time, full stop.

If you’re just reading this for a traditional review of whether the film is good or not, you can stop and buy the Blu-ray and go no further. The fight scenes are razor sharp, the comedic chops are polished (though the film is darker than you would expect, more on that later), and the action set pieces have all the free flowing creative fun that the Hong Kong cinema was capable of at the time.

So this piece will be less a traditional review as much as a survey of the film and all the factors that make it a fascinating cinematic document more than thirty years on.

Dragons Forever was a film that sharply divided its stars in the press, its audience at the box office, and the studio that produced it. It temporarily destroyed the mutual friendship and artistic collaboration between its leads (Hung, Chan, and Biao) that had existed since the three had been in the same Peking Opera troupe together as children and had produced literally dozens of smash hits for Golden Harvest in the previous decade.

The history lesson, in brief: Chan, Hung, and Biao had been child performers at the China Drama Academy in Kowloon, a famous Peking opera troupe that produced many of the cream of Hong Kong’s action cinema crop. In the waning days of the popularity of the Peking opera as an art form the three had parlayed their experience to work in Hong Kong’s burgeoning action film industry as stuntmen.

In the wake of Bruce Lee’s death, all three were earmarked as future stars by an industry that increasingly saw authentic martial arts experience as the key to martial arts cinematic success. Hung was groomed to be the studio’s next top star with an extended cameo in Enter the Dragon and high profile gigs in projects with international appeal like The Man From Hong Kong. Jackie was headhunted by Fist of Fury director Lo Wei to build his entire studio around and fulfilled his ambitions on loan to Seasonal Pictures with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow  and Drunken Master. Biao caught everyone’s attention as a monumentally gifted stunt performer with his work in Game of Death and both Hung and Chan cast the performer in projects consistently as soon as Chan was swiped from Lo Wei by Golden Harvest in 1980.

Three enormous stars with egos to match, who constantly appeared in one another’s projects, indeed, depended on one another to some extent to maintain their own stardom with a set of obligations and, quite frankly, insecurities that went all the way back to childhood.

Sammo was the eldest brother, and so was to be the final say but Jackie was clearly the biggest star, and Biao the most gifted physical performer. Keep in mind too, that these guys are not simply actors but filmmakers in their own right– each of them had worked as director or action director and each of them was responsible for the success of a production company within Golden Harvest.

In 1984, the trio produced Wheels on Meals, one of the most technically impressive and successful Hong Kong martial arts films of all time. Unlike previous collaborations where one of the three was clearly the star and the other two acted in support, in Wheels the trio were firmly established as co-leads in all the marketing.

Dragons Forever, made four years later, is the unofficial follow up to Wheels. Though the performers had collaborated in the meantime, this was the next “Three Dragons” film’ even Benny Urquidez was to return as the film’s physical villain.

Here’s a comparison you’ll only get at Forces of Geek: Dragons Forever is to Wheels on Meals what Crimes and Misdemeanors is to Hannah and Her Sisters.

A remixing of mostly the same actors and crew into a darker, leaner, picture. Instead of happy go lucky lunch truck owners and amateur sleuths, Jackie is cast as a womanizing lawyer who slaps a female client early in the film, Biao is a mentally unbalanced loner, and Hung is a small time con man swirling around a story involving Triads and land developers. Jackie and Yuen Biao strongly objected to playing against type as strongly as they were written to, but Hung insisted and, as director, won out. The resulting failure of the film caused Chan to blame Hung publicly for the film’s disappointing performance and Hung would not direct Biao again until 1995’s Don’t Give a Damn or Chan until 1996’s Mr. Nice Guy.

To occidental eyes, Hung’s vision of a rougher collaboration between the three leads reads as good dramatic sense: the three had played the same sort of lovable goofs for about a decade and as there was no way top Wheels on Meals at what it had been trying to accomplish, there needed to be a clear dramatic break between this project and its progenitors.

Also, to be clear, to this reviewer’s eyes Sammo was absolutely right that his costars’ natural charisma shines through and the play against type allows them to stretch their dramatic muscles.

To the Asian audiences of the period though the film was shocking.

Far quicker to typecast and far less accepting of dramatic innovation for its own sake, the film was the wrong product at the wrong time.

It was the group’s only misfire of the period commercially and Jackie came to blame the work not only for the relatively tepid response to his next directorial effort Miracles but also, it seems to have been the catalyst for a female Japanese fan to commit suicide in his manager’s office which was an incident that briefly looked like it could permanently damage him as a commodity as well as obviously being greatly distressing as a human tragedy.

With all that context, you’re well prepared to enjoy Dragons Forever as a piece of cinema and discover that it holds up remarkably well.

Jackie in particular seems remarkably energized in his fight scenes, with an edge to his character that he hadn’t had since before Armor of God. If most of Jackie’s character’s live by the credo “I don’t want any trouble” it’s safe to say here he doesn’t mind a reasonable amount.

Yuen Biao probably suffers the most here: his actual stunt and action work is among the best he’s ever done but he grapples with the demands of his role more than the other two leads and comes out the worse for wear. Jackie comes off as tough, even when he slaps a woman early on but there are points where Biao simply comes off as deranged. The delicate balance Jackie worked doesn’t quite land for him.

Sammo, for his part, is rock solid as both actor and director. He’s more fond of speed-ramping than Chan and if that technique bothers you you may have quibbles with some of the action here but his technique and editing have never been better. It’s amazing just to watch him move the way he does at his size and it’s easy to see why he’s considered one of the most gifted stuntmen of all time. Interestingly, his character begins rougher but is allowed to evolve into one that’s much closer to his vulnerable, fun-loving persona and of course he nails it. That detail did not go unnoticed by his co-stars and added to the on set friction.

Jackie’s final fight with Urquidez doesn’t top the one in Wheels, but it’s a stunning conclusion to a film loaded with amazing fights. The film features two three-way fights between its stars, and both are rollicking show-stoppers. There’s also a Jackie solo fight on a yacht that feels like it could be in Police Story as Chan just mows through the bad guys to the point where the final one throws himself overboard to save himself a beating. The sequence in his apartment where he has to continually leave his dinner date and go fight with Sammo and Yuen before returning with fresh injuries as his date gets more and more concerned is also a classic.

Dragons Forever is a time capsule of a Hong Kong and its cinema that no longer exist. I hope that this review and retrospective have armed you with the context to enjoy it more fully.

**** out of *****




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