Thursday, 12 November 2015

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Released a decade before his breakthrough in the West, this John Woo film swaps the gunplay for which the director is now renowned for martial arts melees: particularly sword fights.  Despite the different time frame and style of combat, however, some of the Woo trademarks are there.  There's the usual narrative focus on the nature of friendship, honour and loyalty for one thing, and the meticulous fight choreography (usually involving one or two men against a horde) for another.

By modern standard the fight choreography is in fact a little too meticulous.  As I watched them, they felt to me more like collaborative dance sequences than like real, kill or be killed battles to the death.  This may be a generational thing though: this is after all a film that's only a few years off its 40th birthday.

We open with a wedding ceremony.  It is interrupted by a powerful adversary of the groom's father.  Betrayed by the woman he was going to marry and badly injured, the young man barely escapes with his life, and many of his retainers are killed.  He, of course, swears vengeance.

So far, so revenge fantasy norm, but from here things take some twists and turns you might not expect.  I don't think they all work in execution, personally, but at least the film is showing a bit more ambition and scope than your usual action movie.  Of course as I said above, Woo has always shown a great interest in the complexity and paradoxes that underlie his characters' motives, so it's not that surprising to see him reaching for something more than just "beat 'em up" action.

Ultimately though, I think Woo has since done better, more powerful films with similar themes (A Better Tomorrow or The Killer for instance), so this is probably only one you should check out if you're an avid fan of his work, or a big fan of martial arts films that eschew wire fu for a more grounded (if no less elaborate) form of choreography.

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