Review for Dragons Forever
Films flop when popular actors try and stretch themselves and move out of their comfort zones, and inadvertently move out of audience comfort zones in the process. I made that observation when I reviewed the light comedy adventure Hudson Hawk, a Bruce Willis movie that audiences weren’t prepared for after the Die Hard movies. With Arnold Schwarzenegger it was the action movie parody Last Action Hero, and with Stallone it was the indescribable Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Now it turns out that this was a syndrome that didn’t just afflict Hollywood. After Project A and Wheels on Meals, the three biggest Hong Kong action movie stars of the eighties came together for a third (and to date final) time to make Dragons Forever, and apparently it was a movie that flopped. It seems that audiences weren’t ready in 1988 to see Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung play against type in an action comedy. As with all such flops, they are ripe for re-evaluation years after the fact, and when I watched the film on DVD a few years ago, I quite enjoyed it. This year, 88 Films take the opportunity to give Dragons Forever a Blu-ray release, with a 4k restoration.
Commercial disputes can be so troublesome. A fishery owner has a dispute with the owner of a factory upstream, which is dumping pollutants into the river. She wants them to stop operations and clean up their act. The factory owner is adamant that the machines keep working. He’s a man who likes to get his own way, so he hires a somewhat sleazy lawyer, Jackie Lung to deal with the impediment. Jackie’s got a reputation as a womaniser, and his first target is the environmental scientist who’s giving evidence in the case. He also gets his friends Biao, and Wong Fei-Hung to deal with the owner. Biao is a borderline paranoid psychotic, while when we first meet him, Hung is selling illegal guns. The first problem is that neither Biao nor Hung knows each other. The second and more immediate problem is that no one knows that Jackie’s client is a big time crime boss, and that factory is a cover for the production of illegal drugs.
There are three versions of Dragons Forever on two discs in this set.
The Hong Kong version of the film is on Disc 1 (94:25)
The Japanese version of the film, a.k.a. Cyclone Z is on Disc 2 (97:54)
The English Export version is also on Disc 2 (94:09)
For the purposes of this review, I watched the Japanese version, as the most complete version in this set.
Dragons Forever gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on these discs, and it looks as if all three versions of the film are constructed from the same 4k restoration, at least from my cursory glimpses of the other two versions of the film. The 4k restoration has come out a treat too. The image is clear and sharp and stable throughout, colours are rich, consistent and natural, and the image is properly filmic and with a light level of film grain. Detail levels are excellent, and there are no issues with compression or aliasing. However, that does mean that you get that eighties fashion and style in all its glory, and for the first time with Dragons Forever, I noticed a stunt performer doubling for Jackie Chan.
There are plenty of choices here, so hold on. The Hong Kong version offers DTS-HD MA 5.1 Remixed Cantonese, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono Cantonese and the Hybrid English Dub, and also a DTS 5.1 English Remixed Surround. There are English subtitles.
For the Japanese Version, there are DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Cantonese, and 2.0 Mono Cantonese with optional English subtitles.
For the English Export Version you have DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono English with optional HOH subtitles.
I don’t usually go for remixes on Hong Kong action movies, but I had heard good things about this one. And sure enough the DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Cantonese on the Japanese version was really well done. It’s not overly extravagant, throwing effects and action around the soundstage as if suddenly released from the constraints of mono, but it’s a more subtle up-mix, keeping the dialogue mostly centralised, although using the surrounds when appropriate. The action comes across well, and about the most immersive element is the music. It’s a very sympathetically accomplished surround track, and serves the film well.
You get two discs in a BD Amaray, one on each inner face. There is a reversible sleeve, and the whole thing comes in an o-card slipcover.
There is a 40 page booklet with an essay on the film from Scott Morrison, and plenty of production art, stills and the like.
The extras are all on the first disc, and as per usual, hold onto that Hong Kong Legends DVD for any extra feature that comes from pariah Bey Logan.
But you do get a new audio commentary on the film from Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, and there are a handful of new featurettes too.
Benny Forever: Interview with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez lasts 24:36.
Discussing Dragons Forever: Interview with David Desser (7:00).
Hong Kong Cinema Forever: Interview with Mike Leeder (6:05).
Working with the Dragons: Interview with Jude Poyer (6:15)
These are in HD. The following four featurettes are taken from that HKL disc, and are in 480i SD.
Double Jeopardy with Brad Allen (26:36).
Beyond Gravity with Joe Eigo (13:02).
Kick Fighter with Andy Cheng (38:46).
Thai Breaker with Billy Chow (34:11).
Finally there is The Legacy of Dragons Forever (2:33 HD), Deleted Scenes (3:36 HD English dub; note that these are the scenes reinstated in the Japanese version), Japanese End Credits (1:28 HD), Out-takes and Behind the Scenes (13:02 SD), and the English and Hong Kong trailers.
Jackie Chan as a slimy, womanising lawyer, Sammo Hung as a criminal, and Yuen Biao as a mental case? It wasn’t that the actors were out of their comfort zones, as the performances are more nuanced rather than radical departures, but it was the audience taken out of their comfort zone which apparently left Dragons Forever lagging at the box office. It’s a shame, as this was the last film that would see the three Dragons properly onscreen together. While films like Winners and Sinners and My Lucky Stars would reunite the trio on screen, they didn’t share the screen or figure in the story to the same degree. There really are only these three films, Project A, Wheels on Meals, and Dragons Forever that show Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao together at their best, and more importantly in their prime.
The story is as subtle as these things usually are. There’s a moustache twirling villain, and there are plenty of henchmen, there are women to be rescued and fallen in love with, and a comedy of errors will ensue before things get serious for the action climax. Jackie chases anything in a skirt, and when the prosecution witness is particularly attractive, that makes his work as a slimy lawyer that much more personal. A running gag in the film is that he’s constantly trying to have dinner with her, but keeps being interrupted by an action sequence.
He hires Biao to place a bug in the home of the woman bringing the case, but Biao is unhinged and paranoid. The Japanese version has a couple of extra scenes in a psychiatrist’s office to establish some context for the character, which makes that the best version to watch. Jackie also asks Hung to investigate the woman, so he moves in next door to her, and starts romancing her. He doesn’t know who Biao is at first, so when he catches him in the act of planting that bug, it gives him the chance to show off his gallantry, but it also gives Jackie an added headache. Of course Hung falls in love with the woman for real, and the kind of comic farce that these films are known for ensues.
However Jackie doesn’t know just who his client is, and when the penny eventually drops, the butt kicking climax to the film is ensured, including that iconic fight scene with Benny “The Jet”, and we can see that under the sleazy lawyer surface, there beats the heart of an honourable, if lecherous man.
Dragons Forever may be the weakest of the Three Dragons films; let’s face it, it has a steep climb to match the brilliance of Project A, or the sheer fun of Wheels on Meals, but that doesn’t stop it from being a good movie in its own right. Certainly it’s not the disappointment that audiences had back in 1988. Like Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero (and unlike Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot), it stands up well under re-evaluation, with interesting and refreshing new characters from the three main actors, some great comedy, and thrilling, on point action sequences. 88 Films have done themselves proud with this release, three versions of the film on two discs, and packed to the gills with extra features.