Monday, December 13, 2010

Dragons Forever: A Retrospective

Enter the Three Dragons

As a fan of Hong Kong action cinema it’s really hard not to hold Dragons Forever on a pedestal as one of the best films to ever come out of the industry. It’s a perfect example of what makes the industry so fantastic. A perfect blend of breathtaking action, and broad humour, and is a great watch for anyone who might be interested in diving into the fascination word of Hong Kong films.

Dragons Forever was originally released in Hong Kong on January 10, 1988, just in time to be a Chinese New Year hit! Unfortunately it didn’t perform as well as the distribution studio Golden Harvest hoped for. It made a respectable HK$33.5 million. But considering it was a Chinese New Year release, and the star power behind it, the studio expected more. None the less none of this really matters now because in the past two plus decades, it has become one of the most beloved Hong Kong action films of the 1980’s, and to most fans the favourite of the Three Brothers films. It was actually the 5th, and sadly the final of these unforgettable collaborations, which included; Project A, My Lucky Stars, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, and Wheels on Meals.

Chan plays against his type quite a bit in the film. At the time he was known very well to Hong Kong audiences for playing a cop in most of his contemporary roles, the Police Story films play a great role in this, as well as the Lucky Stars films he appears in. Now he turns up as a wealthy playboy defence attorney who is hired by a chemical company that is being sued by a local fishery for allegedly polluting their water. His job is to find evidence that can clear the company, and discredit them from the charges. He hires a friend, who happens to be an arms dealer, played by Sammo Hung to get close to the owner of the fishery played by Deannie Yip. This is the first of a few times in the film we must suspend our disbelief and not ask why such a bright lawyer would hire someone like Sammo to woo a pretty lady, as charming as he is, he isn’t exactly a calendar boy. In a turn you would expect in a romantic comedy, Sammo actually starts falling for his target and lets personal feelings get in the way of his job. Sammo’s character like Jackie’s is also very much against his character type, but he makes it work.

He also turns to another of his bizarre friends, a slightly insane inventor played, again against his type, by Yuen Biao, who he hires to bug Deannie Yips apartment. Unfortunately Sammo and Yuen Biao are both unaware of the other’s involvement and eventually run into one other and do not seem to get along. So now Jackie must try to keep the peace, while also keeping up his relationship with his girlfriend. All this will eventually lead to one of the most memorable, though brief, moments in Hong Kong movie history, the ultimate showdown, Jackie vs. Sammo vs. Yuen Biao. This brief fight may appear as a frustrating sample of what could have been a long epic battle of the ages, but in context of the film works perfectly well how it is.

Not Just the Other Two

Dragons Forever has been primarily marketed around the world as a Jackie Chan film, also starring Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. It makes business sense if they want to sell it to a mass market of casual fans that would see and recognise Chans persona. However Sammo and Yuen Biao bring just as much to the film, and without them it wouldn’t be the classic it is today. Sammo of course also directs, and by doing so brings out the absolute very best in his fellow brothers, and himself. He also provides a great deal of the comedic moments. Yuen Biao is well known for his unique acrobatic abilities, and he doesn’t hold back one bit. There is an especially memorable series of stunts in the ending showdown that would leave anyone’s jaw on the floor; he also provides a great deal of the comedy as well, most notably while sharing the screen with Sammo. What’s interesting is that Jackie Chan is so well known for his comedy, yet in the end he ends up playing the straightest character between them. Though there is one scene that involves Jackie trying to entertain his girlfriend, while at the same time keeping his feuding friends hidden that lets his comedic talents shine.

A Cast for the Ages

In case you are unfamiliar, the term Three Brothers refers to the teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao working on screen together. They get this name because from a young age the three of them were raised together in the Yu Jim Yuen’s China Drama Academy in Hong Kong, and were members of an elite group of seven students called the Seven Little Fortunes, who would tour and perform together as a showcase for the school. The three of them formed a bond early in life and have carried a close relationship, both as friends, and colleagues ever since. Of course, with all the talent involved with Dragons Forever you could almost call it a “Five Brothers” film because two more of Yu Jim Yuen’s students are involved, including the brilliant on screen villain Boss Wah played by fellow student Yuen Wah, and some direction credit goes to another childhood friend Cory Yuen Kwai. Both of which were also “Little Fortunes”.

The cast of Dragons Forever is one of the most memorable aspects of the film, aside from our powerhouse trio; it’s a who’s who of familiar faces across the board, and unlike our stars most of the cast seem to be playing within their element. Deannie Yip of course plays Sammos ‘Romantic interest’, Crystal Kwok shows up briefly as Jackie’s assistant. The film opens with a quick cameo from the great James Tien. The various thugs and baddies we meet throughout the film is packed with familiar faces, including Phillip Ko, Chin Kar-lok, Chung fat, Tai Po, Bolly Chow, and of course you cannot have a cast of baddies without including the mighty Dick Wei. Finally we get a nice appearance from Roy Chiao playing a judge. Anyone less familiar with Hong Kong Cinema may remember him from his appearances in Bloodsport, and The Temple of Doom.

Jackie and the Jet!

Benny “The Jet” Urquidez makes his second and final appearance against Jackie in the film’s closing moments, and gives us one of the greatest fights ever filmed. He is the ultimate heavy that portrays an on screen presence that cannot be topped. A Kickboxer by trade, and also martial arts teacher, and occasional actor, he had an astonishing career. In the span of which he posted an unbelievable 63-0 record in title fights and a career record of 200-0.

Their fight begins with a promise from Boss Wah that if he can defeat Jackie, he gets half his factory, and for the first minute or so the suspense builds and builds as our two warriors slowly circle one another while they remove their jackets, then loosen their ties, not once unlocking eyes. Then wham! Benny unloads with a mighty kick and the fight lets lose, while a cigar chugging squirrely Yuen Wah watches, and occasionally attempts to participate. The speed and intensity of the fight is brilliant, they are a perfect match for each other. It’s a classic Hero vs. Villain showdown as Jackies face keeps a steady look of concentration and occasional winces of pain, while Benny just smiles and turns his head ever so slight as to say “that all you got?” Eventually the dress shirt comes off, and our hero now means business. We do get a quick break from the fight to watch Sammo tie up a loose end that still hanging around, but when we resume our hero has now turned it up to 11, and makes quick work of the might tyrant he has managed to wear down.

A Personal Perspective

Dragons Forever holds a special place in my heart, it was one of the first 1980’s Hong Kong action films I watched, and it gave me a glimpse into to the world of Jackie Chan outside of the domestic box office. Furthermore it introduced me to a couple of people who would become major players in my movie watching world. Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung. I was originally lent a VHS copy of both Dragons Forever, and Jackie’s off the wall comedic manga adaptation City Hunter. Before this I had pretty much no awareness of the world of Hong Kong Cinema. I knew of Jackie Chan of course, from seeing his domestically released films like Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop, Mr Nice Guy and so on. However watching them at whatever time I did, never seemed to have any lasting effect on me. Jackie was fun to watch, and they were fun movies but that was it.

I enjoyed City Hunter quite a bit, but it would be the second of the back to back viewings that would have a substantial impact on me. From the get go Dragons Forever was an instant favourite for me, it hit me like a swift slap in the face that something was right about what I was watching. I had never seen action like this before in my life, it was just a brilliant movie that left me in awe! I remember seeing Sammo’s introduction as he is trying to sell some guns to a couple goons. As funny as the scene begins, I was downright floored when Sammo suddenly breaks out and in a flash show us that for a big man, he can MOVE! Then near the end of the film a towering figure suddenly appears and makes his disturbingly dominating presence known. The ultimate on screen heavy, Benny “The Jet” Uquidez! And his final throw down with Jackie still brings chills!

That was it; Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao were now my focus. It started out with me hunting down as many of their films as I could from every video store I could find. To my pleasant surprise there were quite a bit of Jackie’s movies to be discovered, some of which would feature Sammo and Yuen Biao! Eventually I would discover that my girlfriend at the time, and now wife, who was going to school in Toronto, happened to be going to school right beside China Town! So for about 4 years I made at least a weekly visit to the few legit DVD stores that I could find, made myself well known by the shop owners, and eventually got my hands on all Jackie’s action films from the 80’s, 90’s, and a few early films. As well as dozens of Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao films. Not to mention my eyes were opened to so much more outside their catalogues that I would grow to love over the years. Suddenly it was Hong Kong Cinema in general that would be my new passion. Nowadays I have found another love in modern Korean Cinema, and Asian Cinema as a whole, something that I am still discovering every day. However I still love the wonderful glory days of Hong Kong action cinema which is the 1980’s, and there is still so much to explore, so much I have not seen from this decade. Not to mention the countless films from the 90’s, 00’s, and today that I am yet to watch. And I can’t forget the Shaw Brothers catalogue that I am only vaguely familiar with. It’s quite overwhelming to be honest, but I have a lifetime to discover. And to think, this entire part of my movie watching life that I have grown to adore might not have ever happened if I didn’t borrow and watch an old VHS copy of Dragons Forever.

-Jeff Wildman

Further Perspectives

I would like to thank Bey Logan, Mike Leeder, John Kreng, Ric Meyers and Ross Chen who were gracious enough to take the time to send me a few words on what they think of this action classic. I would especially like to thank thank Cynthia Rothrock for taking the time to share some of her thoughts on working with Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung. Enjoy!

"Dragons Forever stands as the last great hurrah for the titanic trio of Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao. Everyone wishes the three of them would do a new action comedy every year. The fact that they never have makes Dragons Forever seem all the more wonderful as the years pass."
– Bey Logan (HKC expect, screenwriter, producer, author, martial artist)

” Dragons Forever may have been the last of the '3 Brothers' movies, but it’s still my favourite, fantastic action from all involved, some great comedy and the original English dub works so well....”
– Mike Leeder (HK Film Producer, actor, author)

I felt Dragons Forever was a great showcase for the "Three Brothers" that was their final appearance on screen where they all were able to strut their stuff on screen. The on screen chemistry between the three of them was great. I also feel Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah stood out and almost stole the show. The fight with Jackie and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez was a different fight than what we saw with them on "Meals on Wheels"... it was shorter and had a rough brawl feel to it while the pacing was much faster, that it that made you hold your breath throughout the fight. Although that fight was not as well applauded as the one in Wheels...” I feel the fight is still a great one!
-John Kreng (Comedian, Stuntman, Actor, Producer, Author)

“When I first saw it in Chinatown when it premiered, I was intrigued by Sammo's decision to have each star play anti-heroes, and enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly.

As time went on, and I learned more about the situation, I had to accept the little things that bothered me: the long stretches of middling romance and comedy, as well as the oh-so-very-slight disappointment that the Jackie vs. Benny the Jet rematch wasn't as good as I had hoped (and that the doubling of Jackie was so obvious in the final kick).

But now I had immortalized the film in my memory with great fondness for what was first and foremost: the kung fu and the kung fu actors who realized it: the amazing performance of villain Yuen Wah, Kao Fei, Billy Chow (oh, that final fall), Lau Kar-wing, Chung Fat, Fung Hak-on, Rocky Lai (oh, THAT final fall), Chin Kar-lok (who probably did Jackie's last kick), and all the rest.

And, of course, the three brothers themselves, Jackie, Sammo and Yuen. As such, DRAGONS FOREVER remains the "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" of kung fu films.”
-Ric Meyers (Martial Arts Film Expert, Author)

"DRAGONS FOREVER is proof that Yuen Biao is both underrated and awesome. Jackie Chan? He ain't bad either."
-Ross Chen (

“Working with Sammo and Yuen Biao was one of the greatest experiences in my Martial Art Career. I learned so much from these brilliant martial artists. Fighing with Yuen Biao has been my best fight scenes to date. Our timing on the fights was very similiar which made it fun and exciting. Sammo and Cory Yuen were the best action directors I ever worked with. Growing up Jackie Chan was my idol. I use to see his movies and go home and practice what I saw him doing. Unfortunately I never got to work with him on a film but to do so would be a dream come true. All three are are my hero's in martial art films.”
-Cynthia Rothrock (Actress, Martial Artist)

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