Dreadnought (1981)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-01
Summary: Action at its best
If one were to attempt to know the work of John Ford without seeing any of his westerns and war movies or that of Steven Speilberg but leaving out all the movies that deal with space aliens, dinosaurs, the Ark of the Covenant or World War II. While it might still be obvious that the director in question is an excellent filmmaker, you would be missing quite a bit of real genius. The same is true of Yuen Wo Ping. Moviegoers who know him only from his work on “Danny the Dog”, the “Matrix” trilogy and “Kill Bill” volumes one and two don’t know how great he really is.

“Dreadnaught” is one example of this. Yuen has crafted a terrific movie—it is tightly plotted with excellent performances from a top notch cast and breathtaking action scenes. It has good guys you like and bad guys you hate, including White Tiger, a ferocious villain who lives to kill, and Huang Fei Hong, an embodiment of all the virtues of the martial arts. While fight scenes dominate the movie the characters are presented and developed so that the audience gets to know them sufficiently to care about what happens to them. The only major subplot are dealt with using kung fu movie shorthand—Tam King want to defeat Haung’s school in the lion dance competition and claim primacy in the martial arts world, at least in this corner of China. The main action, which involves the maniacal hatred that White Tiger has for Mousy is motivated almost by chance—the bells that Mousy wears (and rings constantly—for a moment one might think that it wouldn’t be so bad for Mousy to get his head chopped off it would silence the constant ringing) remind White Tiger of the same type of bell that his pregnant and very deadly wife wore on her wrist. That’s all it takes to get thing in motion—the happenstance of a family charm that reminds White Tiger of his dead wife and a kung fu school run by a bad guy who want to defeat the school run by the good guy.

Things get off to a rousing start—the first fight scene is less than a minute into the film when White Tiger and his wife (who he is pushing in a barrow) walk into an ambush laid by bounty hunters from several provinces. It takes place in a restaurant that has been taken over by the bounty hunters and is fierce, bloody and brutal. It is also a bit one-sided, since White Tiger and his wife are leagues more deadly than any of their assailants. It is only when she is cornered and surrounded by several enemies that she is dispatched.

The next action sequence is the lion dance competition and its prelude, scenes that show Tam King’s lion dancers practicing both their normal lion dance moves and also the way they will be able to win, by spewing fire and setting Huang’s lion ablaze. The lion dancing is elegant, exciting, amazingly athletic and completely involving for the audience. The dancers—two in each lion—are almost unbelievably skilled. They use the limitations of the costume and necessity to stay in character while performing feats of skill or fighting with the enemy to their advantage so that the rigid rules of the sport are both adhered to but also subverted.

The pursuit of Mousy by White Tiger follows soon after the lion dancer competition. Mousy is stalked through narrow alleyways by his always enraged assailant and in this sequence we see that he is not really a coward. He does everything he can to escape, using the bamboo poles, small logs and large pots that are conventionally and conveniently at hand to slow his pursuer. If he had been really as cowardly as depicted in the first scenes when introduced, Mousy would have just curled up and let White Tiger kill him. Since White Tiger has killed anyone who was even mildly troublesome to him, Mousy’s ability to escape—and the athleticism he shows in doing so—and even inflict a bit of damage on White Tiger shows he is more than just a fearful kid.

The setting for “Dreadnaught” is a violent and treacherous place where peril lurks everywhere—you can even get killed while buying a suit. Tam King, seemingly as put out by not getting an invitation to the opening of a new restaurant as his school’s defeat in the lion dance, sends the Demon Tailor to measure Huang for a suit—and also for a casket. As a tailor, the assassin has the tools of both his trades near at hand: razor sharp scissors, pins and a tape measure that doubles as a garrote. He doesn’t have a chance of carrying out his mission, of course, but it is a wonderful sequence as Huang easily parries the tailor’s skilled thrusts.

While Mousy develops during the movie, White Tiger ends it as exactly the same person he was at the beginning—grotesque, bestial, a deranged killer who doesn’t (or can’t) speak. He lives to kill and does a great job of it. White Tiger is a formidable foe, all but invincible and effectively scary when he puts on his opera make up. The extreme close up that shows him doing it the first time, from the heavy shading around his eyes to the final dots of red to highlight the black and white that covers his face, is a fascinating image.

The main theme of the movie—Mousy’s realization of his underlying courage and confidence and the ability that flows from that understanding—is hammered home when Huang, watching Mousy, tells him that he doesn’t need instruction since he has already mastered Eagle Claw kung fu. This is news to Mousy, but it turns out that the family tradition of using two fingers on each hand to stretch and dry laundry, plus his skillful practice with a washboard (!) has taught him the basics of the Eagle Claw. Mousy is finally able to overcome and kill White Tiger, using the two fingered Claw to rip his skin and pull out entire chunks of hair and the washboard motion to flay him.

Yeun Biao did an excellent job with this character—he acts very well with his eyes, has a great smile and came across as a charming wastrel, someone to hang around with but not to count on in a difficult situation. Kwan Tak Hing, of course, is the iconic representation of Huang Fei Hung and he has never played him better. Leung Kar Yan was good Foon, Mousy’s protector and second in command to Huang. There were a lot of comic relief characters but they came and went (often violently) quickly enough that they were actually funny and not annoying.

Highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 9