Knockabout (1979)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2009-05-16
Yuen Biao had a lot riding on “Knockabout”—a chance to show that his combination of martial arts prowess, good looks and decent acting skills could blossom into the charisma of a movie star, someone who could be at the center of a major picture. Surrounded by a combination of old pros and rising young stars, given a script that was no worse than most kung fu comedies of the period and produced by the masterful Raymond Chow he was given every chance to flourish, which he did.

The humor is labored and was probably funnier in a packed cinema surrounded by like minded fans, all of whom got the jokes. It didn’t translate that well but enough of the jokes involved either straight physical comedies—a pratfall can be funny in any language—or outrageous transgressions of the norm. For example the quests of our heroes to find ordinary citizens to beat up, since real fighters are just too tough to deal with at their current stage of training. But the first part of the film moves rapidly enough with the brothers Yipao and Dai Pao getting into and out of scrapes, succeeding and then failing abysmally in a confidence game involving counterfeit golden taels, getting away with cheating at the gaming tables once then getting discovered and beaten up when they try it again. They are a likable pair: young, brash, on the make and willing to try anything.

“Knockabout” has many characteristics of a Bildungsroman, the story of an individual’s growth and development, the difficulties, setbacks and misfortune he encounters along the way and his increasing understanding and maturity as he overcomes them. It is Yipao’s story—the death of his brother is the turning point of the tale, the one action that makes inevitable his final confrontation with evil, as exemplified by Chia Wu Dao. What had begun as a buddy comedy become a deadly battle between innocence and corruption. The young apprentice realizes the real nature of his master and engages him in the fight of his life.

Chia Wu Dao is an extraordinary villain. He is evil incarnate, corrupting the young, betraying those who depend on him, killing without remorse. He trains Yipao and Dai Pao until they are able to defeat other martial artists, and then fools them into beating up two of his enemies. The enemies are knocked out making it easier for Chia Wu Dao to murder them. He is on the run both from the law and from his former partners in crime and is willing to kill as a first resort. This ruthlessness, combined with his unmatched ferocity and skill in combat, make him a scoundrel for the ages.

Sammo Hung played a stock character the beggar who knows more kung fu than the monks of the Shaolin temple. His mannerisms are annoying, but only a bit—Sammo being Sammo, we forgive him a lot of tics and twitches. Karl Maka’s captain was all eccentric mannerisms and idiosyncratic quirks—he could have toned his act down a lot. Lee Hoi-Sang doffed his abbot’s robes and bald pate for civilian attire and a really strange haircut and showed off his skill as an action actor and martial artist. Lau Tin-Chi and Peter Chan Lung were outrageously repellant as the corrupt banker and his son, each of them stroking the long hairs growing from a malignant looking mole on his cheek while congratulating themselves on cheating the seemingly gullible Pao brothers.

While the supporting cast was very strong, the cameos and bit players were an all-star team. Yuen Tak, Lam Ching-Wing, Chung Faat, Wellson Chin Sing-Wai are just some of the artists who had long lists of credits as directors and action directors and who acted pretty much as stunt men here. The Hong Kong studio system may have been full of inequalities and injustices but it made it possible to assemble a ridiculously deep and talented cast.

Despite its drawbacks “Knockabout” is a terrific movie, full of action and pathos and is highly recommended.
Reviewer Score: 8