In 1978, Yuen Woo Ping and Jackie Chan sent shockwaves through the martial arts movie industry with Drunken Master. Up until this point, Chan had been starring in low budget films for director Lo Wei and, like many other performers, often been forced into the box of trying to be ‘the new Bruce Lee’ (most nakedly with New Fist of Fury). Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow had hinted at how this new collaboration with Yuen Woo Ping would allow Chan to be himself, and it made him a star. Drunken Master made him a phenomenon, and suddenly it was the film that the industry was trying to replicate.
Sammo Hung had been a director in his own right since 1977’s Iron Fisted Monk, and working at a furious pace, and it’s not hard to imagine some jealousy at how his younger kung fu brother had suddenly somewhat eclipsed him being the fuel for Knockabout, which draws many elements from Drunken Master. To Hung’s credit though, this madcap kung fu comedy is no mere copy, and his own personality bleeds through throughout the film.
Yuen Biao, youngest of the kung fu troupe that also included Jackie and Sammo, gets his first lead role as the younger of two brothers (Bryan ‘Beardy’ Leung plays the elder). They are small time conmen, but when they are defeated by an older fighter (Lau Kar Wing) they beg him to be their master and teach him what he knows. Only later do they learn that their master is a ruthless killer, and hiding from the police. Regretful, and seeking revenge, the younger brother trains with a beggar (Hung) so that he can attempt to defeat his old master.
The tone of Knockabout is well indicated by its English title. For this review I watched the uncut Hong Kong theatrical release. There is also a shorter international cut on the disc. In its uncut form, the film leans a little heavily on the slapstick comedy that dominates its first 40 minutes. That first act is essentially plotless; a series of capers that the brothers try to pull and the various ways they first get brief success before being comically foiled. This section is fine; the physical action and comedy is fluid and funny, but it also feels like Hung is marking time. The characters are amusing enough, but after their first attempted con, the rest of this sequence doesn’t tell us anything new, and it’s a long wait for Lau Kar Wing to arrive, bringing a plot with him.
As ever, Sammo has a murderers row of talent to showcase during the film. A particularly excellent cameo is contributed by Lee Hoi-san, whose look and usual casting means that one of the plot’s twists works especially well. The four leads are all excellent. Yuen Biao, for my money, never quite got his dues. Here, green as he is, he has great charm and charisma, as well as a knack for acrobatics that he can turn just as readily to slapstick as to virtuosic displays of martial arts. Yuen Biao is well supported by Bryan Leung, the two have great comedic chemistry and that smooth timing translates into their fight sequences. Lau Kar Wing, as ever, is a great villain. He has fun in his early scenes, as he relishes how desperate the two young men are for him to teach them, and ribs them even as they train, but the villain turn is where his performance comes into its own, and allows Sammo to have some more serious, harder hitting, fights. For his part, Sammo has a gleeful time as the drunk beggar character, obviously notably younger and more agile than Yuen Siu-tien in Drunken Master, he uses that to his advantage, giving himself much more complicated action that that iteration of the character.
The action is obviously the film’s most important aspect, and Sammo expertly ramps things up from the silliness of the early fights to a much more consequential and violent series of scenes as we and the characters discover the truth about Lau Kar Wing’s teacher. This is where the film is at its most purely Sammo Hung, and they are the best sequences in the movie. The final fight is also great. The first half is simply an awe-inspiring exchange of technique between Lau and Yuen Biao, but it becomes more overtly comic once Sammo joins the fray, with him and Yuen Biao employing Monkey style kung fu (complete with sound effects). All told, it’s a great mix of styles, with Sammo making his own movie but also affectionately ripping off his little brother’s work.
Knockabout isn’t tonally consistent enough to be the kind of masterpiece that Drunken Master was, but it’s an interesting entry in the attempts to use that formula, because Sammo Hung comes at it with a force of personality and a style distinctive enough that it stands on its own as a terrifically entertaining martial arts movie.
Each version of the film has been impressively restored in 2K, and comes with a mix of sound options. Only the theatrical cut includes the original Cantonese soundtrack. It also offers a choice of two English dubs, the classic one that VHS viewers may remember, and a newer dub that covers the entire film (as the classic version was for a shorter cut). The export version has two different mixes of its own English dub. Each version also comes with a commentary, with Frank Djeng on the theatrical cut and Mike Leeder and Arne Venema on the Export version.
The video extras are carried over from the old Hong Kong Legends DVD. A deleted scene/promo reel with Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung shows off their physical prowess and the chemistry together. Also included are extensive interviews with Sammo Hung, Bryan Leung and Monkey kung fu master Chan Sau-chung. All in all it’s another impressive package from Eureka that adds context to the film.