Review for Knockabout
I’m more surprised than most of you at this point to learn that I don’t review everything! Watching the Knockabout Blu-ray last night, I had an increasing sense of déjà vu as the film unfolded. It turns out that I’ve had the Knockabout DVD on my shelves for over ten years now. I just never got around to reviewing it for the site. Because of that, it never actually registered as a film that I own. I’m aware that I have a problem. Once I find my way out of this labyrinth of discs, I’ll seek help.
I should have reviewed Knockabout back then; after all it is rather a significant film. It’s Yuen Biao’s first lead role in a kung fu movie. To that point in 1979, he’d worked as a stuntman, or as supporting cast, but this was his chance to shine as a lead actor, and more importantly, let his considerable martial arts skills take centre stage. It’s surprising that it took his fellow Beijing Opera School alumnus Sammo Hung to cast him in Knockabout, a film he directed, and took an un-credited co-star role in. It’s also a film brimming with Hong Kong talent.
Brothers Yipao and Taipao are conmen who are hard on their luck, although much of that is their own fault. They fleece a greedy money changer and make a healthy profit, but straight away go and blow it at a casino, and get pummelled into the bargain. They’re even outwitted by a wily beggar. They try once more to prey on a likely looking, grey-haired mark, and they find that it’s even harder, and more painful to try and con a kung fu master. They realise that they’re on a hiding to nothing unless they learn some kung fu, so they’ll get their ‘revenge’ by becoming the old man’s students, learn all that he has to teach, and then dump him. They’ve picked the wrong teacher. But it turns out that the wily old beggar might be their only salvation.
You get two versions of the film on this disc, the original Hong Kong Version (104:44), and the Export Release (93:04).
Knockabout gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer. The Hong Kong version gets PCM 1.0 Mono Cantonese and the original Theatrical English dub, as well as a DTS-HD MA 5.1 newer English dub. The original English dub is taken from a shorter version of the film, and the gaps are filled with subtitled Cantonese. Consequently, there are three subtitle tracks with this version of the film, full translations, partial translations, and a signs only track. The Export version gets PCM 1.0 Mono Original Theatrical English, and an Alternate Home Video English dub.
You have to love these restorations. Kung fu classics have never looked this good, and Knockabout is no exception. The image is clear and sharp, colours are rich and consistent, and the action comes across without issue. There are no signs of visible compression or the like, and the print is clean and free of damage or signs of age. There is a nice level of grain, and the experience is properly filmic, all of which makes the stunning action and stunts really shine. I was happy with the Cantonese audio on the HK version, and the subtitles were accurately timed and free of typos. It’s a nice, warm audio experience, and there are no issues with tinniness, distortion or glitches.
The first run release will come with a 32 page booklet with writing from James Oliver, alongside plenty of production imagery and stills.
The disc boots to a static menu and you’ll find the following extras.
HK Version Audio Commentary with Frank Djeng and Michael Worth
Export Version Audio Commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Interview with Bryan Leung Kar-yan (7:37)
Heavy Hitter – Interview with Sammo Hung (7:17)
Monkey Magic – Interview with Chan Sau-Ching (25:32)
Deleted Scene (Japanese release Teaser Trailer (3:50)
Original Theatrical Trailer (4:02)
Knockabout has a rather simple and predictable story (or it could have been that déjà vu kicking in), which might not be the most ringing endorsement for most films, but for a kung fu action comedy, comfortable familiarity is something to be aimed for, and lauded. The selling points here are the stunts and action, and the dynamic and creative originality in the direction. Yuen Biao more than delivers when it comes to action, and the rest of the cast live up to that standard. Doing multiple back-flips on a table top is the kind of thing you rarely see on screen, and you have to just pause a minute to take in the audacity. Then you get Sammo Hung directing the film with a level of creativity that makes even tired formulae feel fresh, and he still finds room to subvert more than a few tropes during the film.
The protagonists of the film are petty criminals, while the teacher they choose to learn from turns out to be the film’s villain. That doesn’t mirror your average kung-fu comedy. What makes it predictable is the degree of foreshadowing in how the story unfolds. Sammo Hung seeds the story with indications of how the story will pan out. When his wily beggar character appears, he repeatedly encounters the protagonists, and shows that he’s much more than his shambolic appearance, and you know that he’ll play a part in the film’s conclusion. Similarly, when the brothers encounter the old man who they choose to learn from, we know straight off that his amiability is a mask for something more ruthless. The foreshadowing sets you up for the twists that the story takes, maybe to a higher degree than needed, but at no point do you feel cheated by the unconventional choices in the story.
These technicalities aside, the big point of Knockabout is the comedy, and it’s here that the film works best. A cast full of quirky, cheeky characters make it ripe for humour, and while Yuen Biao’s first starring role as a conman isn’t exactly a challenge, signified by a physical quirk, he’s surrounded by such star talent that he can’t fail to shine. The comedy is fast-paced, a combination of witty wordplay and charming slapstick, although the former is probably lost in translation. Knockabout certainly entertains.
This spring, Eureka Films brings us two Yuen Biao films, this and Dreadnaught. Dreadnaught is the better film when it comes to story, action and performance. Yuen Biao gives a far more nuanced performance in that film, yet I find that I enjoy Knockabout more. It’s simply more fun. Eureka once more work magic with a film restored for HD release, and Knockabout is well worth seeking out.