Dragons Forever Review
Dragons Forever was the last film to be made specifically for the trio of Sammo Hung, Yuen Baio and Jackie Chan. After the simply transcendent, if grammatically nonsensical, Wheels on Meals, this outing had a lot to live up to, and whilst it is an action comedy, like the other films before it, there are some dark undertones here. This could have been an attempt to keep up with the recent successes of the hardboiled thrillers of John Woo and Ringo Lam and the opening scene of the film does resemble those film-makers' work more than any of the trio's individual films. Similarly the roles that Hung, Baio, and Chan play are strange choices for such box office good guys and set them up as more anti-hero than hero. In Dragons Forever they play a mob lawyer, a gun runner, and a mentally unwell burglar respectively.
The film follows these three rogues' progress as they learn the errors of their ways and kick an awful lot of backsides. Chan's dodgy lawyer is doing a mob boss's bidding and he is trying to sabotage a claim against the gangster for polluting Deannie Yip's fish farm. To do this, he sends Hung off to seduce her under the cover of being a helpful neighbour and uses Baio to break in to Yip's house and to plant listening devices. Blissfully ignorant of one another, Hung and Baio end up messing up each other's endeavours and Chan's dastardly plans get frustrated. Love soon blossoms and Hung starts to fall for Yip and Chan gets to tries his charms on unlikely biologist and top totty, Pauline Yeung. This leaves Baio with rather little to do as his sub plot of visiting a psychiatrist was actually cut from the film leaving him peripheral to the plot and lacking motivation for many of his odd actions. Once true love redeems Chan and Hung, they realise that their efforts would be best focused on ending their triad employer's nefarious ways, but instead of simple industrial pollution they find he's up to something far worse.
After the grittier beginning and set up of these anti-heroes, things soon revert to type and the non-stop action comedy is re-asserted. Freed of the thriller stylings that begin the film the audience gets the schmaltzy romance, incredible fights and bang on the bonce slapstick that they expected all along. The most important quality of the trio's formula is their commitment to the authenticity of the kinetic action and physical comedy that fills the film's running time to bursting. To achieve this sense of realness both Chan and Hung used their own familiar stunt teams to orchestrate the fights in the film and the rapid interchanges of blows during the frequent knockabouts looks incredibly realistic and shows what is possible with such impeccable choreography and hard work. With the trio returned to the paths of righteousness the audience is free to enjoy the terrific action that Dragons Forever serves up and this action, and comedy, is shared around, but to be honest it is Chan who gets the best fights. The ambush on the ocean liner is unceasingly inventive and acrobatic, but the best moment is the renewing of hostilities with Benny Urquidez. Like their fight in Wheels on Meals, this is heart thumping visceral stuff and Urquidez makes a heavyweight opponent, but this time he is a heroin snorting, eye-liner wearing fiend. It is a bruising edgy encounter and possibly one of the best martial arts fights in cinema with a desperate Chan helping you believe that he has a chance against the man mountain of Urquidez. The brutality and energy of this fight is awesome and I have to say it's more evidence for the view that Chan is best when he is doing tough hombre rather than family friendly fun. Baio's chief contribution to the action is some breathtaking tumbling and acrobatics which almost make up for the failure to give him a proper character to play and then editing what little motivation he has out of the movie. Hung gets some less impressive fights than Chan and in fact becomes a kind of damsel in distress at one point for Chan and Baio to rescue, but he performs well in his comic moments showing a dryness which is a relief to all the broad humour on show here.
The drama of the film is left to the romantic moments and Yuen Wah's infamy. The romantic moments are twee and rather unlikely in Chan's case – his cross-examination of his girlfriend in court has more to do with the laws of happy endings than anything resembling believable plot or correct legal etiquette. Contrastingly, the romance between Hung and Yip has real chemistry and some great moments, with Hung proving himself a rather good romantic actor especially in the megaphone sequence outside the restaurant. He does sincere supplication convincingly and manages his character's change from romantic rogue to true lover better than many more renowned actors would. As the head villain I particularly enjoyed Yuen Wah, whose lithe physical aggression is mixed with jet black humour and endless cigar chomping. He creates a kind of evil cross between Groucho Marx and Snake and Crane style, whether he has to kill or to corrupt Wah delivers his villainy not unlike a punchline.
Dragon's Forever is more than a little phoney and hardly great drama, but it is wonderful physical entertainment that owes more to Buster Keaton than Bruce Lee. It captures Chan at the height of his action powers and demonstrates again what a renaissance man Sammo Hung is. It doesn't really mean too much or aim itself anywhere other than making you smile or getting you involved, however very few action comedies are this successful at either laughs or thrills. If the ageing trio never make another film together this was a fine way to leave things. It is funny, furious and forever.
The film has been given a digitally remastered anamorphic transfer at the ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is excellent with fine contrast and excellent sharpness and no excessive grain in either darker or lighter sequences. Colours seem faithful and warm with skin tones looking bang on and the edge enhancement subtle. The print itself is spotless, I can't recall seeing any marks or even very minor damage to it. Comparing the transfer with the Hong Kong Legends disc, I can find little difference as the HK Legends disc looks as strong as this new release in terms of the feature presentation. My only thoughts are that this release seems to have a warmer hue, boosted contrast and slightly more detail.
The disc comes with three surround options and a mono option which I believe is a downmix of the surround track. The Mandarin option is the worst of the tracks with dialogue sounding oddly dispersed and rather dull tonally, it does sound very muddy with a lack of definition or clarity. The Cantonese surround tracks have much better defined sound which is at it's clearest in the smooth DTS track, the rear speakers are occasionally used for sound effects but the sound doesn't exactly follow characters movements. There is also a lack of appropriate sound effects on occasions - in Hung's first fight he slams a baddie on a crate to the accompaniement of a mild bump. Generally the surround speakers are used for music and more obvious effects with nearly all dialogue and sound coming from the centre channel. The downmixed mono track is without distortion or obvious defects but the original mono track would have been preferable. The English subtitles have very rare mistypes but barring occasional missing prepositions the translation is well done.
This release does not touch the existing R2 two disc package for extras. There is no commentary, main cast interviews or featurettes like the HK Legends disc. It does use some of the same material such as a silent reel of outtakes and on set footage from the making of the film, and deleted scenes(including Baio at the Psychiatrist), but the only meaningful new extra is a five minute interview with Yuen Wah. Wah talks about the challenge of playing a rare comedic role, improvising some action, and states that he doesn't like "overkill" in acting - after watching his performance in the film that may not be obvious! The silent footage of outtakes and larking about on set is the same as you would come across on the HKL disc and is little more than a few fights gone wrong and some autograph signing. There are two trailers, an original theatrical one and a re-release version, and photos and a slide show. There is also the alternate end titles with an English song playing the film out. The extras are not subtitled with the exception of the interview and the deleted scenes.
Well I suppose the bottom line comes down to whether this new release has a sufficiently improved transfer as to justify another purchase for fans of the film. This is a fine new transfer but I don't think that existing dvd owners need to double dip as the extras are far more plentiful on the HK legends disc and the improvement in transfer here is merely marginal.