Dragons Forever Review
Developed as a Chinese New Year release in 1988 Dragons Forever reunited the ubiquitous ‘three brothers’ Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Having previously starred together to great acclaim in Project A and Wheels on Meals it had been some four years since the trio had joined forces as their respective careers continued to blossom with Jackie in particular rocketing to super-stardom in the time that had passed. Interest and expectations were high, not least amongst the talent themselves while the film brings together not only the most famous of the seven little fortunes but many of their peers far and wide across the Hong Kong film industry of the time. Choosing to cast themselves against type to varying degrees the film was also to be shot on a hectic schedule requiring multiple units with both Sammo and Jackie’s stunt teams working double-time under the direction of their respective namesakes, with Sammo helming the project overall with additional help by Corey Yuen. That it would not only mark the third but final time the trio have worked together to date is only part of what makes Dragons Forever so special in action movie fans’ hearts.
Jackie adopts a slightly skewed version of his traditional screen persona with both name and nice-guy image mostly intact. Portraying a womanising defence lawyer working for despicable types and doing an excellent job winning their cases he still manages to work in a little come-uppance when necessary to complete his more familiar character image. Assigned a new case in which Boss Wah’s (Yuen Wah) factory is at threat Jackie calls on his friends for a little undercover support. Originality is the key with Sammo sent in to win the heart of Miss Yip (Deannie Yip), the client’s accuser and convince her to settle, while Yuen Biao is sent in to bug her apartment. Unfortunately neither is aware of the other’s existence or their jobs, and with volatile personalities are prone to erupt at the most inopportune of moments including those when Jackie is undertaking his own special assignment; that of winning the heart of the key witness, Miss Wen (Pauline Yeung). Passions ignite as the love stories develop while the client begins to show his true colours, leaving our heroes to crash and burn with the women in their lives before setting out to pick up the pieces and bring justice to the villains of the piece.
As was often the case in films featuring the three brothers Yuen Biao’s role is significantly reduced in comparison to his associates, lacking most notably in a romantic entanglement of his own. However, the character he portrays is more colourful than usual and despite having no background to speak of the viewer is given plenty to work with. From the jobs he takes on in the name of friendship to the paranoia that surrounds his every action, our first meeting with him is a good example of his temperament. Returning home he suspects a burglar on his property so breaks in to the first of many covert acts we see in the film before taking on Jackie who must go to great lengths to identify himself and fend off the repeated attacks. His mind is constantly in motion and his mouth rarely falls far behind, while the pets he keeps are of both capitalist and communist ideologies, leaving us with only his profound devotion to his friends to determine the simple but slightly deranged character he actually is.
Sammo’s screen persona has an equally mysterious past, with our first meeting showing him to be an arms dealer before he goes on to explain his fighting prowess by confirming he was once a fight instructor. Aptly named Wong Fei-hung then he is another of Jackie’s friends and agrees to woo the plaintiff, Miss Yip, in return for a commission on the sale of her property should he be able to convince her to settle. In this role Sammo proves to be quite the Casanova, admittedly using dishonest methods to get the girl but delivering the perfect man smile and overall package with great ease. The role also allows for his theatrical training to be employed outside of the fight sequences as the elaborate romance between he and Miss Yip develops. In contrast to the somewhat forced and more sporadic relationship we see develop between Jackie and Miss Wen that of Sammo and Miss Yip’s is far sweeter and ultimately quite believable thanks in no small part to Deannie Yip who puts in a solid performance as the jaded but strong-willed single woman.
Director Sammo Hung along with his director of photography brings a very accomplished look to the film, using a variety of location shoots which could double as a commercial for tourism in Hong Kong or ideal housing locations in the new territory regions. The sets featured are also to a high standard, exceptionally well dressed although the apartments of the characters are slightly too ‘hotel room’ in appearance the chance to branch out in the final reel to an eighties rendition of a post-modern factory (think James Bond villain and you’re half-way there) allows for some eccentricities which extend elsewhere with bizarre set decorations and technology employed by Sammo & Biao’s undercover work. The fashions of the day are also a sight to behold; where else but here would you find a burglar adopting a bright yellow sweater – something he must have received from an aging relative at Christmas – as part of his guise?
With a swift setup and introduction to the leading characters and their individual and joint motives the film is able to reach its first peak relatively quickly in the first of many occasions when the three dragons of the title are brought onscreen together. After a few separate encounters they eventually meet for what is mainly a comedic set-piece in which Sammo & Biao, sworn enemies at this stage are together in Jackie’s apartment knocking heads while Jackie is attempting to dine Miss Wen and keep the peace without revealing his associates. The elaborate situation calls for expert comic timing and a deluge of physical comedy trappings which are incredibly well directed and executed while the philosophical ravings of Biao’s character help to raise this familiar comedy situation to a new level. When Jackie becomes embroiled in the fight he must bring his date to a swift end so we then get to see the piece wind-down and revel in his successive trips in response to the doorbell as he first appears with a black eye and then a bloody nose. Its classic comedy from the silent era shown to work as well now as it did then, providing the execution is right, and it’s very right here.
Enjoying the dragons’ chemistry through the plot and comedy antics is a treat when they are given so much to work with as they are here, but the main interest for many will be the action which I’m happy to say is liberally featured throughout in the lead-up to the inevitable big action finale. Watching Jackie take on a horde of thugs aboard a luxury yacht or Biao and Sammo come to blows on frequent intervals is a joy with each sequence choreographed to their individual merits, but it’s the opportunity to see the trio first fight each other and then fight alongside each other that makes the final half-hour so special. Beyond a fun little aside in the courtroom displaying an idealistic portrayal of love and some other plot progressions which serve to free the key players of their commitments and allow them to concentrate on the enemy at hand, there are a couple of strange character moments in the lead-up to the final encounter. The first can likely be explained by Sammo’s trademark direction which always leads to a female character being put at severe risk, which Jackie’s character does by throwing Miss Wen out as a decoy and simply saying “be careful” which I have to say never really sits well with me as does his rather half-hearted attempt to stop her from tagging along as they enter Boss Wah’s illegal drug factory. Before this there is also a related moment in which Biao’s character literally attempts to kill Miss Wen, simply to prevent her from being a witness in a case she has brought against him. This comes very much out of the blue and is then quickly shrugged off, but will make a lot of sense when you see the deleted scenes involving a psychiatrist plot thread excised from the theatrical cut we’re seeing here.
Moving on then in spite of these strange character developments the final half-hour eclipses any misgivings by delivering some of the most thrilling entertainment in terms of pure action choreography and stunts as the factory set is put to great use for an all-out action finale. Playing to the actor’s key strengths; Sammo’s sheer power, Biao’s athleticism and Jackie’s versatility the surroundings make for a prime setting of backbreaking stunts and acts of physical prowess that continue to impress no matter how many times you witness them. Another of the seven little fortunes Yuen Wah, who doesn’t have much to do as Boss Wah before the finale, makes sure to leave his mark by adopting a similar sly kung-fu style as that seen in Eastern Condors as he is allowed to flex his muscles, both comic and leg, riling up Jackie’s character by taking cheap shots all the while puffing manically on a cigar in amongst the blazing fights occurring around the factory set. The ‘main event’ though is Jackie vs. Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, an absolutely frightening man in make-up so thick I often wondered if a facelift had gone wrong, while his real-life success in the kickboxing and many other fighting arenas is brought to the screen with vicious ferocity for what many believe to be Jackie’s greatest onscreen opponent.
After fans have waited diligently for several years Hong Kong Legends have finally seen fit to release this gem of eighties action cinema via an all-new two-disc Platinum Edition DVD release.
Picture and Sound
Using a new high-definition Fortune Star master which has been restored to impeccable quality the transfer is uniformly excellent with impressive detail levels throughout recreating the wealth of textures and colours featured with natural skin tones and extremely solid blacks. A natural level of film grain adds to the experience where the only detractors are some minor edge enhancement and infrequent occurrences of aliasing and shimmering (such as the white cupboard doors in Jackie’s apartment).
Remixed Cantonese 5.1 and original Mono tracks are available with the latter sure to satisfy purists. Though perfectly in sync and giving a visceral immediacy to the films action the Mono is prone to distortion on the high end of the scale. The 5.1 by contrast is better mastered with subtle use of the rear soundstage and good balanced reproduction of music, dialogue and effects across the front. An English 5.1 Dub is also available while subtitles in English and Dutch are clear and easy to read.
As with all HKL DVD releases the extra features are only partially subtitled in English (covering any non-English dialogue).
On disc one you’ll find an audio commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, a man familiar to many through his work with HKL and film in general. Once again proving to be an excellent host Bey offers up a wealth of information and a generous helping of enthusiasm for one of the all-time great Hong Kong action movies never letting the viewer down with relevant and not-so-relevant factual details. Of particular interest are his comments regarding the film’s relatively poor showing at the box-office upon release, some disturbing facts relating to Japanese female fans of Jackie Chan and the astonishing talent that is Benny Urquidez.
All other extras can be found on the bonus disc which is broken into four sections…
Bey Logan hosts a half-hour retrospective Dragons Remembered in which he travels to various locations some 17-years since filming completed and discusses aspects of the project and how it will go down in history as probably the last feature film to have Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao working together on and off-screen. Interviews with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan (sadly but predictably archival), Crystal Kwok, Yuen Wah and Benny Urquidez are all featured and vary in quality, though undeniably Sammo, Crystal and Benny make the most heartfelt contributions with genuine answers and stories from the set and their thoughts on the trios’ work together.
Here you will also find a 35-minute featurette on Thai Breaker Billy Chow, a champion kick boxer and Hong Kong movie bad guy in numerous films including Dragons Forever in which he fights Yuen Biao in the final reel. This featurette (directed by Jude Poyer who has worked on stunt featurettes in the past for Hong Kong Legends) begins with footage of a recent championship match Billy participated in, still competing despite now being in his forties we hear words from his friends who are ringside. These include Chin Kar-lok - a stunt-man and now actor/director in his own right, seen in Dragons Forever doubling for Jackie and executing the phenomenal whirlwind kick in the final fight – as he talks about why he and several close friends support Billy, discussing his character in and out of the ring and how they met. With the fight over we then sit down for the final twenty minutes in which Billy discusses his career in the ring and on the movie set, how he was discovered by Sammo Hung and his work on various movies with different action directors. With a calm demeanour both inside the ring and the interview chair this is a good piece that works in spite of the fact so many more possible interviewees do not make it to the set.
The Cutting Room Floor
Two deleted scenes running approximately 4-minutes entitled Couch Potato and Mr. Kinetic develop Yuen Biao’s character and explain the fold-up bicycle we see him with in the film and his strange actions towards the end when he attempts to kill Miss Wen. Presumably excised for time and because the angle taken requires more development than these two small scenes offer, there is some welcome material here for Biao fans as well as a cameo from Stanley Fung (Winners and Sinners).
An 11-minute NG reel captures many behind-the-scenes moments including the obvious bond shared by the leads which result in them cracking each other up on a frequent basis, while slow-motion moments capturing selected kicks and stunts are particularly impressive to view. Sadly there is no on-set audio, just another typically brash variation on the music often found on HKL titles.
Both deleted scenes and the NG reel are presented in anamorphic widescreen with Cantonese Mono audio on the deleted scenes with English subtitles. The picture quality is not up to the main features standard but still looks pretty good, though with some very notable wobble in the Couch Potato scene.
This section of the disc includes interviews with actors, stuntmen and stunt co-ordinators who have worked with and been influenced by Jackie Chan. Beyond Gravity runs for 13-minutes and sees a young performer, Joe Eigo, describe his influences, training and eventual first meeting with Jackie Chan which led to an opportunity to work with the JC Stunt Team for a period of time. Expressing his hopes and desires the interview very much reflects Eigo’s age with a positive attitude and look towards the future. Double Jeopardy runs for 26-minutes and features the first white member of the JC Stunt Team, Brad Allen, explain his rise from a young boy watching Jackie Chan movies to training in China and eventually meeting and working with Jackie for a number of years. Most prominently featured in Gorgeous Allen explains that project in quite some detail along with an inside-look at the JC Stunt Team and how Jackie works. His admiration for the man is blatantly clear and with good cause. Kick-Boxer is a 38-minute interview with Andy Cheng, a man most will recognise from Jackie’s work on Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Shanghai Noon where he was one of the lead JC Stunt Team crew members and quite prominently featured on screen. This lengthy interview is often quite slow-paced but sees Andy pay tribute to his inspiration to work on film and how he eventually came to work with Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao over the course of his career. Recorded some time ago Andy speaks of his pending work with The Rock on The Rundown, while a quick look at the IMDB shows his continuing efforts have paid off with him most recently working as stunt co-ordinator on Terence Malick’s latest The New World.
Here you can find the original Hong Kong theatrical trailer, the UK Promotional Trailer and the revised UK Platinum Edition Promo.
This two-disc Platinum Edition offers a superb transfer and a good selection of bonus material though it has to be said that beyond the audio commentary, retrospective featurette and deleted scenes there is nothing else here particularly specific to Dragons Forever. That leaves nearly two-hours of extras that could very well have been placed on any other Jackie Chan specific DVD release, with some of the stunt featurettes in particular far better suited to films which HKL do not have the rights too. Indeed that could very well be why they’ve been placed on this set, and given that the retail price is no more than usual I don’t see cause to complain too much. So what the hell, go buy this DVD!