Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon Review
Director Lau Kar Wing left his directorial mark on Hong Kong cinema with this relatively mediocre buddy comedy starring comic actor Karl Maka as the skinny tiger of the title and arguably Hong Kong's largest export, Sammo Hung as the fatty dragon. An ode to Bruce Lee movies that had gone before Sammo's character was sold as one obsessed with the little dragon's antics but due to legal rights we never once see Lee's image or even hear his name or work discussed on screen. Instead this large selling point of the movie is found solely in the bouts of martial arts action featured throughout utilising dubbed Bruce Lee sound effects to really sell the character trait.
Maka and Sammo portray two Hong Kong police detectives who frequently coerce their suspects into giving up the information they require. Playing off as a not so good cop, bad cop combination the pair get the job done but often cause their chief much grief in the process. This only adds to the lighthearted proceedings thanks to Wu Fung's amusing portrayal as the slightly camp boss who loves nothing better than to give a sly 'up yours' to those he must answer to when their backs are turned. The overall plot kicks in fairly early on as the two are building a case against the notorious 'King of Cocaine' and in doing so find themselves and their families on the hit list of Thailand’s most lethal lady boy hit squad! This culminates in a movie high on local comedy routines and slick hard-hitting action sequences with a vengeance fuelled final showdown.
Maka is somewhat miscast as a successful womaniser, or at least someone who believes he has the looks and charm to woo Hong Kong's finest. His 'Slaphead' nickname is far more accurate especially when combined with his volatile, pepped up behaviour and overly confident comedic routines that wear very thin, very fast. Sammo on the other hand is cast in the same role we have seen him in before, the underdog in every sense of the word that plays on the fact our initial perceptions of any large dumpy character are lower than most be it his success with the ladies or ability to defend himself. Seasoned regulars know different of course as Sammo plays this role so well you can't help but smile when the ladies warm to him over Maka, followed in due course by that overwhelming sense of childlike innocence he exudes so well through his reactions to their affection.
Together the pair just about work as they provide a striking contrast through both their characteristics and physicality, and despite Maka sometimes over compensating in an effort to match Sammo's stature the balance is there and for the most part is maintained to an agreeable level. Indeed some of the most enjoyable sequences see the two combine their comic talents, from the simplistic but hilarious stomping they give a suspect in front of the police commissioners to the ruse they put over their would be killer in the final sequence, these are times when you can understand why this partnership may have worked for the Hong Kong audiences of the day.
Some attempt has been made to flesh out the characters by giving us a brief insight to their lives away from work but aside from the chance to meet two interesting figures from the world of Hong Kong cinema in the roles of Maka's lover (Wanda Yung) and Sammo's father (Ngai Hong, famed scriptwriter from the Shaws era) little is made of this plot extension. Another component in the films poorly structured repertoire is the main characters baffling decision to join the Singapore Tourism Commission's payroll as they head over midway through the film for a holiday. While there they point out the cities natural beauty, and how the natural beauties residing within are more than willing to befriend two unlikely chaps from Hong Kong and fund whatever business ventures they may be interested in. At best I guess you can say Sammo's dancing routine and the former Miss Singapore winners featured help brighten up this otherwise unwarranted break in the action and pace set before it.
Be they underused or unusual, the plot elements, structure and scripting are somewhat lacking while the film in general feels so terribly dated I can understand why this did not storm the Hong Kong box-office. Throughout the eighties Sammo starred in and directed many classics, but he was also part of numerous productions that have the same pedestrian structure and simplistic comedy featured here. Now though technically Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon would have been shot in the tail end of the eighties it was released in 1990, a new decade that for the early half at least, brought with it a slew of visionaries that redefined Hong Kong cinema with classic examples of storytelling in place. Instead this swan song is a decidedly eighties child that probably felt somewhat dated upon release, let alone now and its only saving grace for both lead star Sammo Hung, and director Lau Kar Wing are the exquisitely choreographed and superbly executed action sequences that punctuate the mediocre story and occasionally amusing comic turns.
Amongst short bouts of action and a car chase are three stand out fight sequences which see Sammo Hung impersonate Bruce Lee's onscreen fighting persona to great effect, aided to a certain extent by the Bruce Lee audio archives adding in those trademark sound effects. With a combination of fight choreography from director and martial arts exponent Lau Kar Wing, the credited fight choreographer Ridley Tsui and no doubt with some input by Sammo Hung the film has a team working on the action worthy of your drool, and for the most part it delivers with some exhilarating sequences. Playing on the sheer power Sammo conveys the fights see him take on several opponents laying them out with a speed and fluidity that defies his size but matches the power we have seen from Bruce Lee, one of the few martial artists who could truly sell that one-hit-wins method of fighting.
Most satisfying of all however is the use of weapons in the film, from stick work to nunchaku Sammo wields them expertly and ties in the various nuances Lee himself displayed when using his weapons of choice. The only real disappointment on this level is how we are agonisingly cut away to see Maka performing his three stooges-esque comedy in amongst the action, with Sammo taking on a horde of bad guys in the background with his nunchaku in full force. Moving on though we can see how Lau Kar Wing's influence is most noticeable in the films finale in which he himself features (portraying a gang boss) and squares off against Sammo using a mixture of more traditional style fighting and blade weapons to great effect. This almost entirely grounded mixture of Bruce Lee and traditional kung fu action is a joy to watch thanks to slick editing, wonderful performers and those thankless stuntmen who must have been really hurting after Sammo unleashed his own fists of fury on them.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is just about maintained albeit with some minor cropping to all four sides. This is unlikely to bother most and is fairly common practice on Hong Kong Legends releases though when combined with overscan I found some of the composition in the fight sequences to be a little cramped. Also typical of HKL is the far more positive approach of sourcing a good quality print that combined with the superb frame-by-frame restoration process results in an image that is virtually devoid of white specks, grit and damage of any other kind. Despite some softness detail on the whole is quite high with nicely rendered skin tones and minute detail on the multitude of fabrics coming through well so we can enjoy the eclectic range of eighties inspired clothing featured. Colours and black levels are also to be commended with no signs of colour bleed or blooming present, shadow detail is however quite lacking while compression artefacts and edge enhancement are kept to an agreeable bare minimum.
The original Cantonese soundtrack is present here in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround effort that stays faithful to the original mono by keeping things heavily focused on the front speakers with only minor separation present. An English Dub is also available in 5.1 and features the standard horrific voice acting and dumbed down translation.
The optional English subtitles appear to be a literal translation as they certainly do not match the dub track and with no sign of spelling or grammatical errors I see no reason to offer any negatives in this area. English Hard of Hearing and Dutch subtitle tracks are also available.
Once again Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan offers an audio commentary featuring a deluge of biographical information on the films leading characters both in front of and behind the camera. Clearly benefiting from the fact he was able to visit the set and witness shooting when this film was being made Logan has plenty of interesting stories to impart on the viewer and does so in an open fashion that fans of the genre are now fully accustomed to, while newcomers should never feel in over their heads as a result.
Interviews featured on the disc are with the films director Lau Kar-wing and one of the action directors Ridley Tsui. Between them nearly 45-minutes of conversation follows with both discussing their specific roles in Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon whilst also taking the opportunity to discuss Hong Kong action work ethics of the day in comparison to Hollywood and what passes for the Hong Kong film industry of today. Both make for interesting viewing and for a change the included film clips are more than welcome as we see restored sequences from the forthcoming HKL releases of the seminal Lau Kar Wing directed movie, The Odd Couple, Jackie and Sammo in Winners and Sinners and even behind-the-scenes footage showing Ridley Tsui at work on No Regret, No Return (though I have a feeling we have seen this before).
Other than a text extra looking at the Sammo Hung/Bruce Lee connection which makes for interesting reading and is most likely penned by Bey Logan the discs extras are brought to a close with a collection of trailers. The Original Theatrical Trailer for Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon clocks in at over 5-minutes and somewhat suspiciously features the crude English dubbing while the UK Promotional Trailer is a far better preview reel if you need to convince a friend to watch this film. Also featured on the disc are no less that 10 promotional trailers for other HKL/Premier Asia titles along with the Premier Asia Showcase featurette.
All video-based extras are presented in anamorphic widescreen while English subtitles are only featured on foreign-language extras (in this case the interview with director Lau Kar-wing).
This contemporary action comedy offers some fine martial arts choreography with Sammo Hung impersonating Bruce Lee like no one else can but the regional comedy is for selected tastes only with myself, no stranger to Hong Kong comedy and someone who would jump at the chance for a Chow Sing Chi movie marathon, finding the Maka influenced sequences fairly routine. Definitely one for the hardcore fans, even then I would advise you check out the eminently more enjoyable Enter The Fat Dragon first, in which you can see a younger Sammo Hung do Bruce Lee almost better than the great man himself.