Killer Constable Review
Killer Constable is a film where the hero is an unthinking cruel zealot and where his prey turns out to be loving fathers and starving citizens. It completely commits itself to recreating a time of famine and duplicity where the rigid and unfeeling application of law and order, as decided by the wealthy, leaves the people exercising it as simple pawns and stooges. This depth of setting makes the movie surprisingly good and can create many a modern day parallel in the viewer's mind with its dramatic message of a political class which uses the security force/police as its tool for keeping the people oppressed and itself enriched. Such a sense of social resonance is probably why I enjoyed it so but the film is also brave enough to start affairs with a hero whose brutality is cloaked by chivalry and his uniform and to encourage the audience to accept his actions as the necessary shock and awe to handle the scum he encounters. We are then shaken out of this identification and our education as to what is really going on follows the same path as that of the titular lead character. This is quite a feat for a martial arts adventure and the success of the Killer Constable is doubly rewarding for its ambitiousness. In terms of quality, Killer Constable starts out well and becomes supreme.
The story begins with the rather tubby Empress Dowager of the Manchus turning up her nose at an impressive banquet designed to take her mind off the fact that some unknown men have made it off with ten million taels from the royal treasury. To placate her majesty, her trusted lieutenant Lord Liu suggests that they send their most dedicated crime fighter off to recover the gold and dispatch the villains. We are then introduced to Leng, the aggressive cop of the title, who dispenses with a siege of some escaping bandits single-handedly ensuring all of his suspects are judged by his sword rather than the courts. His brother witnesses this and remarks to him that he does not want to help in such summary justice. Leng is dispatched to recover the gold and given 10 days to do so. He picks up the trail at the local mill and after torturing the family there, they recover some of the gold and leave the wife a widow. Next they find two more of the gang hiding out in a temple, but the gang get the jump on Leng and his men and crucify one of his underlings. Leng chases them to the seaside where his plans are again complicated by another ambush which kills all but two of his posse but yields some more villains’ heads and gold bars. Leng next finds that the gang have hired an assassin and more carnage follows. Ambushed again Leng is saved by his brother as the rest of his men bite the dust and he finds himself rescued to the chief of the gang’s blind daughter. When the chief returns, Leng learns some truths and understands who his real enemy is.
Killer Constable is never less than enthralling with superb set-piece fights and dramatic intrigue. It’s a mistake to write it off as a typical Shaw Brothers Wu Xia as the film is a real triumph of craft with excellent location shooting, interesting set design, a fine script and impressive direction. The set-pieces in the film between Leng and his assorted enemies never duplicate one another in the respect of location or action and the movement between fights allows the story to breathe and the revelations in the plot to happen naturally. This is essential to the film as it allows the twists and turns to not seem too extraordinary but at the same time to not lessen the novelty of them. For instance, the fight between Leng and the Assassin occurs on a giant sundial and this imaginative setting means that the inevitable fight between the two is given a freshness lacking in other films of the studio's output. The pace of the film is exemplary and the plethora of fights never drag because the action is joined up through the intelligent writing and the resourceful mise-en-scene. The portrayal of Leng as a far from admirable man and the choices to show the suffering of the Han people mean that the audience never loses sight of the milieu of the film despite their enjoyment of the action, and this ensures that when the real villain is revealed we are give added incentive to support Leng’s final actions even if we were horrified at his barbarity before.
The chief reason for the success of Killer Constable is not the action or the acting, it is the handling of all the elements that make this film such a rich and rewarding entertainment. I can’t say that Chen Kuen-Tai is anything other than competent as the lead but the rest of the cast is handled well whether their roles are cameos, supporting or villainous, and this sure touch is extended to the action which is often unremarkable as physical feats but compelling as an agent of the drama. The orchestration of the lighting, the composition of the frame, the tempo created through the editing, and the mixture of studio and location shooting are all done superbly. As a Shaw Brothers film this does seem to have benefited from above average production values but it is in the direction that these resources are made to count alongside the novel story. Killer Constable is a bit of a miracle in terms of mise-en-scene and dramatic quality and that is largely the fine work of its director, Kuei Chih-Hung. He even ensures that the final scene has an added impact as vengeance is satisfied even if the vulnerable are left in the rain. This is one of the best films Shaw Brothers ever made, yep that good.
IVL continue their tradition of restoring these great films only to couple them with dodgy transfers. Visually this is almost acceptable because of the lack of alternative presentaions of this fine film but the transfer is again a bodged PAL-NTSC conversion with motion shake and combing visible. The transfer is also soft, shows saw-toothing effects and the colour has been boosted a little too far. The contrast is at least well done and I suppose once you re-calibrate your TV you will be able to enjoy the movie even if the conversion issues remain.
The audio is the original Mandarin mono and the sound lacks any pops or crackle to distract you. It does sound a little flat and equalised but dialogue is always clear and audible and as a package this is preferable to artificial surround mixes or unrestored audio. The English subtitles are not the best in terms of grammar, clarity of translation or typing but they are generally ok.
The package of extras includes the original poster art and stills from the film included in photo galleries, functional and selective biographies for key cast and the director and a two sentence long section of "Production Notes". the biography for the director reveals that he once worked as assistant to Chang Cheh and the maestro of HK cheese, Ho Meng Hwa. Somewhat better is the inclusion of the original trailer for the film which gives a real sense of how much has been restored here when compared with the re-release trailer. There are also trailers for the DVD releases of Cheh's Men From the Monastery and Shaolin Martial Arts, along with Opium and the Kung Fu Master and Corey Yuen's Hero.
A gory, dramatic action thriller which mixes secrets, intrigue, and politics with fine swordplay. This release is so-so visually, but about average for these IVL releases, and if you like the more dramatic films of Chang Cheh or the more earthbound films of Chor Yuen then you will need to own a copy. Personally, I loved it.
Last updated: 23/05/2018 14:11:55