Heart of the Dragon Review
Directed by Sammo Hung Heart of the Dragon was an ambitious project for the already established director in which he and fellow action legend Jackie Chan created the opportunity both were rarely given, to act in a serious dramatic piece in which the action took a backseat to the storytelling and characterisation. As onscreen brothers the duo often excel as they depict the loving relationship held between two grown men, one a police detective whose ambitions are coming to fruition, the other inflicted with a mental disability that sees him rely on his brother's love as he struggles to become the man he only appears to be on the outside.
Opening with each on their respective playgrounds, Tat Fung (Jackie Chan) is an accomplished SWAT member who has just progressed to CID while his mentally challenged brother, Danny (Sammo Hung) plays on the streets of Hong Kong with the local school kids with whom he associates far better too than those his own age. Easily led by the children he trusts, Danny often finds himself in trouble with adults unaware of his mental state and so Tat Fung is frequently called to his aid. Familiar with the responsibilities placed upon him by his brother, Tat Fung's role in life is becoming too much to bear when his own ambitions can never be realised, so it is when Danny inadvertently finds himself in the clutches of a criminal gang that Tat Fung must choose between his brother's life and his own future.
Of the utmost importance in a film of this nature is the depiction of the mentally ill, for in the hands of a lesser actor the layers required to convince the audience this is not just someone behaving like a child are simply not there. Sammo however completely sells it, with an internal struggle hinted at on numerous occasions as the understanding his character feels over the sacrifices made by his brother are not only played out through his onscreen actions but seen through the characters emotions. His 'roly-poly' image goes some way to create the jolly fat kid trapped inside a great mans body image the general public see as he plays in the streets with his friends, while the genuine and sometimes callous nature of those school children friends shows how all walks of life are only to willing to take advantage of a fellow human being. Issues such as these are tackled with a gentle, humorous approach from Sammo and Jackie walking through the streets of Hong Kong, hand-in-hand and receiving disapproving looks from passers by to one of the children Danny plays with coaxing him into the schools office, pretending to be the boys father whom the principal wishes to see. Given a scripted line by the young boy, the results are increasingly funny as Danny repeats the line ad-finitum while playing with his action toy.
As his brother Jackie Chan also impresses, a man who after twenty years of caring for Danny longs to break away and live his own life. Intending to marry his girlfriend (Emily Chu), leave Danny in her care and sail away following his acceptance to the Navy, the possibility to break away is within his grasp, no matter how ill-conceived the plan may be. Depicting an internal struggle of his own as his righteous friends ignore the harsh reality of Tat Fung's situation and accuse him of being an unworthy brother, Jackie is convincing as a man torn between personal goals and personal sacrifice, as the choice is an obvious one yet something he isn't quite ready to accept. As individuals both Sammo and Jackie put in strong performances, but it's when together the two excel as their life-long friendship must have surely gone some way to allow them to be completely at ease with each other, delivering emotionally charged sequences as the struggles key to the plot are played out in a wholly convincing manner that is only stricken by the melodramatic leanings found in the direction and supporting players.
In particular the aforementioned group of friends with whom Jackie and Sammo are required to play off tend to fall short of the emotional resonance they're attempting to project, with Mang Hoi standing out early on as a rather animated character when attempting to show a genuine sense of care while the rest are very much a blank canvas reading their lines on cue. Fortunately they are not featured enough to cause the film any real harm, but a few edits here and there might have helped their cause while the direction from Sammo on their introductory sequence is much like that of the opening SWAT training segment, almost dreamlike as they come from nowhere speaking on behalf of Tat Fung's conscience. It's a strange plot device and one that is not helped by the edits enforced prior to the films release (by Sammo Hung as director), as with the fight sequence that should have followed their purpose for being present in the scene with Jackie holds more water.
Sammo may fall short in a few directorial matters such as those mentioned above and the use of a narrative theme song that plays on two occasions in an effort to advance the storyline, but he makes up for any attempts at pulling on the audiences heartstrings with the action delivered in the films final reel. Having setup a convincing relationship in which a tough decision needs to be made, the plot device of having Danny kidnapped resulting from his inadvertent foiling of a criminal gangs deal may seem like the easy way out as Tat Fung heads off to his brothers rescue. In a way I guess it is, with some of the police methods portrayed that lead to these events rather unconvincing but what the finale allows for is a series of action sequences that play to the audience both leads understand so well, while giving us something different as Jackie is seen mercilessly beating and occasionally killing his brothers kidnappers as he goes against his characters moral standing as a policeman to meet his role in life.
Beautifully shot as is the rest of the film (DOP Arthur Wong brings a very professional look to the drama and action sequences) the final reel begins with a thrilling car chase sequence in which the logistics of the shoot alone will have minds boggling until the action finale culminates in a building-site setting where Tat Fung and his trusted friends infiltrate the gangs location, bringing them to justice through a series of shootings and martial arts based combat sequences that bring together sharp, swift and brutally effective techniques with the odd touch of flare courtesy of action choreographer Yuen Biao. Ending on an unnecessary montage brought together with the aforementioned narrative theme song Heart of the Dragon proves to be an unexpected delight and triumphant experiment, one that has sadly yet to pay off for the leads (and in particular Jackie) as it should have by now...
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen the transfer here is for the most part very good, with a restoration job that sees little in the way of print damage creeping through. There are some problems in this department though, with the opening credits for example looking quite worn as colour timing jumps a little before settling down to a strong, consistent look that has the primary colours of the characters outfits setting off well to the excellent cinematography seen throughout. The only other problems worth mentioning are some general background shimmering that is rare but sometimes noticeable, and a few rough shots that creep through in the car chase sequence that could almost be taken from a bootleg tape. In terms of detail levels the film looks astonishingly good, with the close ups found in the more emotional sequences featuring a good level of facial detail while the deep blacks seen in the finale allow the foreground action to stand out to great effect.
The original Cantonese language track and optional English dub are presented via Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes. The former was my audio option of choice and maintains the original stereo mix by focusing strongly on the front and centre speakers, with some satisfying bass working to the advantage of the action finale. It's worth noting that much like the video quality, the audio starts off in a fairly bad state with the Golden Harvest logo sequence and opening titles sounding rather out of tune, but like the video aspect of the disc the audio settles down to a tone and quality I would say is respectful to the original.
Optional English and English SDH subtitles are provided and would appear to offer a literal translation of the dialogue, though I have to say I was a little unsure about the name 'Danny'. Once again however Bey Logan does the team at Hong Kong Legends a possible disservice as he translates a key exchange of dialogue in the final showdown between Jackie and Dick Wei, where his version is both quite different to the translation seen on the disc and also, to my mind, a more effective set of lines.
Bey Logan signs on for another of his trademark commentary tracks in which there is no real central theme to discuss, but instead an opportunity to inform the viewer of the varied location work and supporting actors and stuntmen featured throughout the film. From veteran Shaw Brothers players too regular Sammo and Jackie Chan stunt team members everyone is given a name check and some relevant information discussing where they are now and what they're finest hour was, while scriptwriter Barry Wong and DOP Arthur Wong are also given their credit. Heart of the Dragon is a film Bey loves for much of the same reasons I did, and gives the lead stars their due with some discussion on the complexities of their roles while fans of the missing footage can hear a little discussion on why it was removed and where exactly it should have been placed.
Outside of the commentary track of most interest to fans will be the Deleted Scenes. All fight sequences, three are present with Methadone Mayhem following the early setup at the station where Jackie moves up to CID. It makes sense in terms of the films context as we expect something to happen at this point but instead it cuts away, so here we see the action scene that should have followed, with some decent displays from Jackie and the stunt team, but I’m not sure it would have worked in the film at such an early stage (instead the few seconds developing the setup should have also been cut to help the flow). Next is something I mentioned in the main review, with the Two Tribes deleted scene showing the car park fight that should have followed the introductory scene with Tat Fung's friends. Though a good scene with a fun group battle the action is of the Jackie Chan comedic variety, and again I have doubts it would have worked in amongst the dramatic storyline. Finally we have a very short extension to a fight scene called Pickaxe Killer, excised from the final building site battle most likely due to the method Jackie uses to dispatch his attacker (though it's no worse than Jackie sticking the machete in Blackie Ko's neck!). The latter is the only deleted scene I would have liked to see back in the film, but they're all great inclusions on the disc presented via a fairly low quality anamorphic transfer complete with English subtitles for the little dialogue featured (along with permanent burnt-in Chinese subtitles).
Different Strokes is a new interview with Sammo Hung running for a little under 12-minutes. Unusual in the way its presented, a gorgeous young lady by the name of Jocelyn Tse is both seen and heard posing the questions to Sammo, quite why and who she is I'm not sure while hearing the questions allows me to say they could have been better (not her fault as I doubt she wrote them) with some inaccurate and Sammo telling her so. Oddities aside, this is an excellent interview from the great man himself (his growing size is a concern however) in which discussions on the characters and script development for the film are totally relevant for a change, and his musings on the project are a worthy insight.
Spotlight on Action puts acclaimed director of photography Arthur Wong in front of the camera as he speaks in English regarding his introduction to the industry and his work in particular on Heart of the Dragon. Running for just over 15-minutes this is an entertaining interview with some good insight to the film industry and the relationships shared on set.
Rounding out the extra features are original theatrical and UK promotional trailers for Heart of the Dragon, the former being quite unique as it features the singer of the theme song giving a few words on the film. Also present are promotional trailers for other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia DVD releases.
Available since 30th December 2003 the Fox Region 1 DVD release is part of their Fortune Star remastered series. In terms of picture quality the R1 and R2 obviously share the same basic source as both feature the title sequence glitches with colour timing adjustments in the opening shot while the car chase sequence later in the film is subject to the same low-quality shots on both versions. Where the R1 betters the HKL effort is in contrast levels and colour reproduction, with the latter being slightly brighter showing a greater level of grain, while the former has a more natural look with stronger, bolder colours and deeper levels of black. These improvements offer the most benefits in the final action sequences with the building site cinematography looking more defined and adding to the dark tone of the fights on display. Comparison images follow...
R1: Above - R2: Below
Both Cantonese and English dub tracks are featured on the Fox DVD release, each remixed into Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 with unfortunate effects. Certainly when it comes to implementing the rear surrounds the team at Fortune Star are more gung-ho but when they introduce all-new and hardly convincing Foley effects for both action and dramatic sequences you can only but mumble under your breath in disgust. Optional subtitles are included, but are of the straight dubtitle variety. The actual translation in the sequences I sampled is not that different from the HKL effort, so make of that what you will while the positioning and font choice of the Fox release is both too high and fairly unpleasant.
Extras include the original theatrical trailer (non-anamorphic and unsubtitled) while the deleted scenes are also included and despite being presented in non-anamorphic widescreen look a darn sight better than the HKL set do (Click for a comparison), but it should be noted they omit all transitional dialogue and overlay the original audio track with a tacky rock soundtrack. Sadly the Pickaxe Killer sequence is not included on the Fox DVD.
Despite any misgivings about the supporting players and the occasional signs of audience manipulation Heart of the Dragon proves to be a fine dramatic piece with standout performances from its leads that also manages to satisfy action aficionados. The R1 may have the edge in picture quality (and it’s a slight edge at that) but any fan of the movie would be mad to go with anything but the HKL DVD release for the altogether more satisfying movie presentation and extra features collection...though you may want that R1 for the better quality deleted scenes.