Cinema fans around the world know the work of Yuen Woo-ping, even if they aren’t aware of it. In the West, his choreography for Kill Bill and The Matrix helped define decades of Hollywood cinema. Before that, though, he made his mark with countless Hong Kong classics, such as Once Upon a Time in China and the Ip Man series. His talents also formed the foundation for films beloved by martial arts buffs, like Drunken Master, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow, and Iron Monkey. Dreadnaught, released in 1981, is another of his great, underappreciated work. It combines slasher tropes with the kung fu flick, resulting in a truly unique picture.
The film follows Mousy (Yuen Biao), a timid laundry washer who finds himself having to learn to fight fast when a serial killer known only as White Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee) begins to stalk his village. Thankfully he’s not without allies. Bryan Leung (who paired with Biao in Knockabout) is on hand as Foon, a famous disciple to folk hero Wong Fei-hung (a figure in Chinese folklore similar to Robin Hood).
Here, Wong Fei-hung is played by Kwan Tak-hing in his last appearance as the character. Tak-hing played Fei-hung in at least 77 films between the 1940s and 1980s, most of which are unavailable to western audiences (or at all!). He was such an iconic stamp on the mature version of the character that most other versions have portrayed him as young (like Jackie Chan in Drunken Master or Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China). He really is just totally at home and great in the role, so it’s nice to own a good copy of his swan song on home video.
That said, the plot meanders and is unfocused in its first half, but at least the characters are fun to spend time with and the real spectacle (the fights) are great. Things pick up in the latter half, and the final fight between Biao and the White Tiger had me gasping out loud multiple times.
Fun fact: The scene in this film where Biao uses laundry to show off his kung fu skills inspired the same scene with Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever.
Though not listed as a restoration by Eureka, the image on the company’s new release of Dreadnaught looks clear and is certainly the best available at retail. As with Knockabout, Eureka did not skimp on the extras for this release. The slipcase trend continues with another nice edition, and there’s also my favourite thing — newly translated English subtitles. The Cantonese and English dubbing tracks are present, and we get two new commentary tracks, again with inimitable Frank Djeng providing his insights. We also get a nice collector’s booklet and an archival interview.