Dreadnaught (1981) – By Josh Samford

 Rogue Cinema is a special kind of webzine folks. We cover independent cinema, drama, horror, comedy and pretty much anything you can throw at us. Still, to my knowledge, I don’t know if I’ve ever done any Kung Fu reviews for this here mag. Odd, especially considering how often I sit down to watch me a good chopsocky flick. So, I figure no better time to start than the present and after having just sat down to a fairly popular film that I am having some not-quite-so-popular feelings on; I decided to give it a go. As of writing this, I’m feeling a bit on the fence with the film I am trying to review: Dreadnaught. Being a pretty big fan of Yuen Biao from the films I have seen and enjoyed him in, and being told Dreadnaught was some of his best work, I guess I can’t help but be disappointed that he only had one complete fight scene throughout. The majority of any other films involving him and his martial arts are either very, very brief or are not quite what you would call technical. Not even for a Kung Fu flick. I know that’s a bit of a biased view, but I am just human and we are all allowed to be just a little selfish now and again – and after 80 or so minutes of a film that had dynamite but refused to light the fuse; I just can’t help but wish Biao could have been allowed to really participate a good bit more with Yuen Woo Ping’s choreography. The climatic fight scene does indeed show just what a force these two were together, but had Biao’s character stood up for himself or had a good training sequence to flesh out the transition of his character, I would have felt the film definitely fit the mold of being the classic most everyone else seems to agree upon.

However, I do realize I am sounding like a spoiled sport who just didn’t get what he wanted. That is just my own personal disappointment I found within the film, so why not just get that out of the way. If you’re expecting Yuen Biao to really display his agility and acrobatics in this film, it really has more of a Yuen family production vibe to it. The silly over the top humor (of course you have to have the one cross-eyed character!) is trademark early Yuen Woo Ping/brothers work, and casting Yuen Shun-Yee as the lead villain just seals the deal for me as being a unique film from Woo Ping and a couple of his brothers (Yuen Cheung-Yan makes a small appearance). In that context, if you’ve liked films like Drunken Wu Tang and generally love Woo Ping’s choreography as much as every person on the planet (you’d have to be a fool not to), then just don’t make the mistake I did and walk into this film under the wrong impressions. Better displays of Yuen Biao at his very best work can be found in Eastern Condors, Prodigal Son and even Iceman Cometh. For those unfamiliar with his style and raised strictly on Jackie Chan and some Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao was the third member in their trio and the three starred in many kung fu comedies during the eighties including Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever. Biao for one reason or another never really took off on his own, even though I and many other martial arts film fans have always saw him as being one of the most agile, athletic, entertaining and comedic actors of his era. That’s not just smoke being blown up your skirt either, he really is that good.

Dreadnaught tells the story of Mousy (Biao) a collector for his sister’s cleaner service, and it’s his job to go to places like the local theater and try to get the money owed – even when the theater is protected by a giant muscle bound oaf who could not take Mousy any less serious. Mousy however is in luck due to his being best friend with the courageous Ah-Foon, who is master Wong Fei-Hung’s grandest student. Foon takes pity on Mousy, helping him occasionally, while Mousy just admires him and hopes that he too can someday study under Fei-Hung (Tak-Hing Kwan, who made the role famous, doing his own caricature of the folk hero in many, many Chinese films). Pretty soon the natural order of events becomes disrupted when a stranger comes wandering into town and starts working at the local theater. Unknown to any others, this stranger is the wanted White Tiger who is a brutal killer that is haunted by the death of a loved one. Every time he hears a bell ring, he is immediately transported to their death and goes into a violent rage destroying everything in his sight… and it just so happens that Mousy’s lucky charm he hangs around his neck tends to jingle like no one’s business. Can you guess how this triangle of events might come around? Well throw in a evil master from a rival school who wants to destroy Wong Fei-Hung and takes White Tiger under his wing and you have a pretty well put together Kung Fu flick.

I know it’s kind of a letdown not seeing Yuen Biao being his same old self on display here, but there are still many, many things that obviously make this film a classic for so many. An incredible lion dance sequence that has to be seen to be believed. It probably tops the work from Jackie Chan’s Young Master and might be one of the more impressive Lion Dances I’ve seen in a martial arts film. Then there is the classic sequence with a tailor who happens to secretly be an assassin trying to get close enough to kill Wong Fei-Hung but is unable as he continually repels his assaults – all in the disguise that he is being measured for a suit. Moments like these definitely give the film an edge above the competition. I know I have my first doubts about the film, but in the end even I have to bow and give the film good graces. It is certainly a great film and heads and shoulders above a lot of the recent flicks I have seen. I highly recommend it for fans who have studied the waters fine, but for beginners in the old-school realm of martial arts on film – I might say start with one of the previously mentioned Yune Biao works to better understand what he is capable of, and perhaps check out some of Yuen Woo-Ping’s films like Fist of Legend to really get a grasp on why he is the master of his field. Once again, I highly recommend Dreadnaught and I feel over time it will grow on me. No matter what disappointment I might have felt, I know that Dreadnaught really is a great film and deserves much of the respect it tends to get,