Few martial art movies have had as big an impact on the taste of western cinemagoers than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. The fight scenes from both of these movies became more than famous, and have been elevated to the status of iconic. It’s no wonder then that, when people talk about Dreadnaught the first name they mention is the action choreographer of the first two movies and director of this one, Yuen Woo-ping. The irony being that, when compared to its contemporaries, Dreadnoaght isn’t really an action movie.
It’s vital to stress that qualifier: ‘compared to its contemporaries’. This is still an action film. It stars Yuen Biao, one of the greatest action stars of all time, as Mousy, a laundry man. It also has stalwart of the genre Leung Kar-yan and Yuen Shun-yee as the villainous White Tiger, so the martial arts pedigree is pretty well established. In addition, and of particular note to anyone with an interest in film history, this movie also features Kwan Tak-hing in his last appearance as legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. Tak-hing played the character in at least 77 different movies and is an action movie legend in his own right, so seeing him here adds presents a generational passing of the banner.
Despite all of this Dreadnaught clearly breaks the mould. Rather than being a series of fight and stunt scenes connected by a mostly irrelevant script, this movie is actually character driven. Relationships are created, motivation is more than two dimensional, and the story matters. Because of this it does feel like there are fewer action scenes than normal, which many fans of the genre may not enjoy, but it’s such a palate cleanser that it really should be savoured.
We’re given other surprises as well. A standard trope is to have a young underdog learn to fight in order to defeat the bad guy, and this is present here with Biao. The difference being Biao’s character is a coward. Rather than the usual cocky hero who needs to learn humility, we get to enjoy watching a young man grow in confidence. Another genre standard that is ignored is the training scene. Despite the presence of Fei-hung there is no master-student relationship, at least not in the way we usually see them. The student doesn’t have to learn the legendary three toe monkey technique or do push ups while his master roasts marshmallows on the fire on his back. Instead, the hero goes through a far more internal journey of discovery, and realisation that they do have the ability to deal with the problems they are faced with.
Of course, it is still an action movie, and there’s a reason Woo-ping is a legend. The early scenes – those before Biao really gets his mojo on – are fine, and once the real fighting starts there is some incredibly creative choreography to enjoy. Of particular note is an earlier scene with Biao doing laundry that fans of Batman Forever will recognise straight away, as he displays skills that will later come back and allow him to win the day. (As a side note, fans of Batman Forever also need to have a long, hard look in the mirror.)
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The special features are somewhat lacking with this release. There is an O-card slipcase, as well as a well written collector’s booklet by James Oliver. On the disc itself are two audio commentaries, one with Frank Djeng, the other featuring Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, an old interview with Lily Li, and some trailers. The commentaries do add the kind of context needed for someone unfamiliar with this style of movie to more deeply appreciate what’s going on, but it is a shame that the Eureka Classics range of kung fu movies are often only able to add commentaries and a booklet to any existing interviews they can dig up, rather than bringing us the occasional, original special feature.
Despite these minor gripes, Dreadnaught is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, and one that stands out amongst a sea of others. It deserves a place in the collection of any fan, and its more involved, character driven plot makes it a far easier film to watch to those new to the genre.
Dreadnaught is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.