Last Hurrah For Chivalry Review
Until discovering that this film was a martial 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 unraveling 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 sword fighting. 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.
On the one opportunity that I've had to compare the release of a film to its later issue on the Dragon Dynasty label (The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin), the care taken by the US label was obvious with a quite stunning transfer and an impressive set of extras. This isn't quite as good as their work on that film but largely because the style of the film is somewhat different. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, though offering many moments of fantasy, was more grounded in historical fact than this film, which comes with more of a fairytale look about it. It's almost entirely made on studio sets and the colours are rich and warm, notably the blood that splashes freely over the screen. There is also a certain softness to the film that I had taken to be a fault of the Hong Kong Legends transfer but which is also obvious, to a much lesser extent, here.
That now looks to be deliberate and a result of the film being shot on soundstages as the external scenes are much, much sharper and with less of the fake blood and, obviously, the painted backgrounds. Last Hurrah For Chivalry is then yet more proof that Dragon Dynasty are doing a sterling job with this run of Shaw Brothers films with this looking very special throughout. It gets much better later in the film, particularly with the arrival of Green, when less of the action takes place during daylight hours and when the film's use of colour reflects a greater amount of drama but it does look very decent throughout. There is a minimal amount of print damage with the image being bright and stable throughout. However, given that Last Hurrah For Chivalry was the best-looking of the recent Hong Kong Legends releases, this is only a small improvement on what the UK label released.
The same was said of the Hong Kong Legends audio tracks but, once again, this is better again. Offering a Cantonese DD5.1 and Mono and a dreadful English 5.1 dub, this is less brittle-sounding than the UK release with the clank of words not being as pronounced. With that, this sounds warmer than the Hong Kong Legends release with the dialogue clearer and less obstructed by background noise. However, that's less desirable in the case of the English dub, which is atrocious and certainly one of the worst that I've heard. Finally, there are English and Spanish subtitles.
Commentary: As with other Dragon Dynasty titles, Bey Logan offers a feature-length commentary that is as informative, detailed and as entertaining as one could want, not only from a commentary but also in covering all that one might hope for from a making-of. Logan has a vast knowledge of the Hong Kong film scene, of martial arts and of the cast and crew and where they worked (or didn't) after a spell in Hong Kong. Happily, Logan isn't at all dry but is, instead, easy and enjoyable to listen to throughout. Indeed, no matter the lack of a making of and the short running time of the other features on the disc, so complete is this that it is almost all that one could want from Dragon Dynasty for this release.
Pray For Death...Fung Hak-On (9m38s): Hak-On was the choreographer on Last Hurrah For Chivalry and explains how it was that he and his friend John Woo became involved in the film business. What struck me during this interview was how modest Hak-On is, never taking the credit for a decision made during the making of a film when it actually lies elsewhere, such as being asked about the editing of the fight scenes and his role in them. Very little he says, explaining that the editing of the film was left to John Woo. Otherwise, Hak-On describes his role in the movies, his part in Last Hurrah For Chivalry and a breakdown of several scenes from the film.
Deliver Us From Evil...Lee Hoi-San (10m57s): Like Hak-On, there is much humility with Hoi-San and his role in the making of Last Hurrah For Chivalry. Talking about the choice of weaponry, Hoi-San explains how little say he had in those decisions. It is rare to hear an actor, who, relative to their fame, claim to have done everything from actually direct their latest film to have walked on water, tell an audience how little say they had with regards to the making of a film but not Hoi-San, who describes his part in this and other films in the manner of being a very minor player in the Hong Kong movie scene.
Legendary Weapons Of China (10m51s): Throwing a move that suggests some martial arts training. Or perhaps, like those who grew up with Kung Fu, The Water Margin and Monkey, he simply spent long days in his childhood messing about with homemade swords and nunchukas and a yard brush in place of a bo staff. With the help of a couple of people who look very comfortable at waving a sword about, Logan takes the viewer through the main weapons featured in martial arts and in the movies, not just swords and knives but nunchukas and spears. And his final words? Get down a gym or dojo, find a martial arts master and enjoy the training. Wise words.
Finally, there are a couple of trailers, the Original Theatrical Trailer (4m35s) and the US Promotional Trailer (1m50s).