Last Hurrah for Chivalry Review
Until discovering that this film was a martials arts/swordplay film from director John Woo, the impression given by the title was of a Barbara Cartland novel brought to the screen. Something like Duel Of Hearts and which would star Emma Samms, Fiona Fullerton and Gareth Hunt and which would race to an end with King Charles II returning from exile to save a lady in waiting from having her head placed on the executioner's block. Actually, that does happen in Cartland's The Lady And The Highwayman, which stars Michael York as the king, Lysette Anthony as the lady and Hugh Grant as notorious highwayman The Silver Blade.
However, Barbara Cartland never wrote a tale like this, in which one warrior throws acid in the face of another. That's one of the more shocking moments in this tale of two swordsmen who are bound by honour, friendship and their being hired to murder another. The two men in question are Chang and Green, two noble swordsmen who are befriended and hired by the unstable Kao to avenge the killing of his family some years before. At first, Kao seems friendly, open even, and welcomes Chang into his home. But what Chang learns is that Kao has need for this skills as a swordsman having sworn revenge on Pai, a ruthless warrior. Chang, having believed that he had put his past as a warrior behind him, is reluctant to become involved in a fight that is not his and even as he is provoked by Pai's soldiers, Chang keeps his sword sheathed.
Green is just as reluctant a warrior. He suffers from a drink problem, is in love with a woman who he feels he does not deserve but in a life that's something of a shambles he forms a firm friendship with Chang. However, as the two of them finally agree to join with Kao, they learn the shocking truth of his deception. However, for Chang, the truth, as well as the complexity, of Kao's plans will prove to be the unravelling of all that he has recently come to put his faith in.
In the midst of far too many early Jackie Chan films, this well-made and interesting thriller is like arriving upon an oasis in an otherwise parched desert. Far too often in my recent run of martial arts films, one might not really know what's happening but what one can be sure of is that after wandering about for several minutes, Chan and friends will arrive upon a mysterious village, mountain pass or rival martial arts club and sparring for so long that the fight tips over into tediousness, emerges victorious. As sure as the passing of time, Chan will end the film a hero having defeated all about him. Last Hurrah For Chivalry offers no such certainty and is all the better for it. Whilst one suspects that Chang will eventually take up his sword, he refuses to do so for so long that one begins to have doubts. Green is, on the other hand, not so much reluctant as someone who, if not afraid to use his sword, is so wildly unpredictable as to what he might do with it that any reluctance comes from those standing by his side. Chang's dislike of fighting may well come from a fear of what Green might do. As the story plays out, this fear is not entirely without justification.
The real treat about this film, and this is certainly true for the film's opening half hour, is how in spite of not really knowing what's happening, there's a sufficiently interesting series of events as to want to remain with Last Hurrah For Chivalry. The deeper into the film one goes and the more complex Kao's plotting becomes, the better the film is until, near its end, writer and director John Woo pulls away all that one thought one knew with an audacious turn of events in the midst of a sword fight. Add to this some remarkable moments in which Woo breaks from the action to better develop his characters, including Green's romancing of a woman almost certainly lost to him already, which allows his film to breathe between its set pieces, and Last Hurrah For Chivalry becomes as much a study of the bond between Green and Chang as it is a reveal of some stunning swordfighting. That it finds a near-perfect balance between the two is a mark of how assured the making of this film is and how bright was John Woo's future.
If the film is an improvement over some of the other Hong Kong Legends discs reviewed of late, the quality of the transfer is as well. Anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, this is a good-looking mix of studio sets and location shoots and while it's entirely possible that you'll be able to distinguish one from the other, both look impressive on this DVD release. There is a small amount of print damage but colours are good, the picture is bright and detailed and it can often look beautiful. Oddly, given how this looks so much better than Magnificent Bodyguards and The Protector, this one hasn't been billed as an Ultrabit Edition when it is much mre deserving of the title than other releases from Hong Kong Legends.
The Cantonese DD5.1, English 5.1 and Cantonese Mono are, again, all much improved over other Hong Kong Legends releases even if it still sounds a touch brittle, particularly the special audio effects. However, that isn't very much different from other films of this ilk in which the swish of swords sound as bright as a new pin. That isn't, though, typical of the entire audio track, which sounds much warmer than that odd moment out. Finally, there are English and Dutch subtitles.
As well as a set of trailers - Heroes Shed No Tears, A Better Tomorrow, New Police Story, Warrior King, The Big Boss and Bullet In The Head - the only bonus material is Familiar Faces: A Retrospective, which is a nice way of describing various clips from Knockabout, Project A, Game Of Death 2, Duel To The Death and Zu Warriors From Magic Mountain and how the actors Lee Hoi-San and Damian Lau appeared in these films, though not together. However, whether or not we needed a ten-minute set of excerpts to make it clear that there are a limited number of actors as able in martial arts as these two is open to question.