Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Dragons Forever

Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen steer the Three Brothers cycle to a close with Dragons Forever, a sappy, scrappy entry that sees each of the principal stars acting wildly against type. Hung puts himself front-and-centre with a turn as a soft-hearted arms dealer that allows him to play a chaste romance with older lady, Deannie Yip. This relationship, and a parallel romance for Jackie Chan, forms the meat of Dragons' second-act, muscling out some mounting intrigue surrounding a gang of smack dealers and their New Romantic heavies.

Yuen Biao pops in and out of the film as Tung, a principled inventor prone to psychotic flights of fancy. It's a juvenile, supplementary part very much in the vein of Austin Wai in Fearless Hyena II or an insane version of Biao's own David from Wheels on Meals. As is usually the case, Biao's gymnastic perfection is wasted with a role best described as an recurring plot obstacle. Tung is essentially a malfunctioning robot child, programmed to ruin burgeoning relationships with ill-timed appearances.

As an idea, simple-minded violence maps nicely onto Biao's youthful, underdog persona. Hung and Yuen choose to keep the actor underdeveloped and on the margins though, the bulk of his story on the cutting room floor. Come the finale, the high-kick MVP is fed to the alpha heavy to raise the stakes for a confrontation with Chan. Unfortunately, despite some early promise, Biao's interjections are akin to Jim Varney's Earnest suddenly turning up in the middle of a Rob Reiner film. Tung is an irritant you always feel ill-prepared for.

Jackie Chan's character Lung is the biggest departure of all, a corrupt mob lawyer who's not above cracking uncooperative women across the face. Chan's flirted with sourness before, his roles in the Lucky Stars films had an arrogant, impatient clip to them, but Lung is actually sleazy. Every woman is ogled. According to Bey Logan's commentary, the chartered boat seduction Lung employs to woo Pauline Yeung's character was a proven method for rich businessmen looking to ooze around beauty pageant contestants.

Logan insinuates that Lung's womanising is a lot closer to the real life Jackie Chan than the relentless do-gooder persona Police Story had minted. He also states outright, quoting Sammo Hung, that Chan was the main stumbling block to further Three Brothers films - he just didn't want to make them. Hung had helped resurrect Chan's career after a couple of duds and the star's US misadventures, but by 1988 Jackie Chan had three proven formulas to riff off for sequels. He didn't need his Big Brother anymore.

Perhaps there was a quality issue in play too? Wheels on Meals and Heart of Dragon had delivered but the Lucky Stars films had gotten increasingly ramshackle. Chan's guest spot in Winners & Sinners had evolved into a recurring obligation to prop up an action finale. Chan's involvement also ensured that the films would be an attractive proposition for the Japanese market. With this in mind, it's easy to see a kind of courting going on in how the film's finale is arranged.

Benny Urquidez is back, recruited to play a henchman with a Yuppie haircut and Blitz Kids make-up. His eyebrows are fair against pale skin, he looks singed, like Arnold Schwarzenegger after tackling Reese's improvised car bomb in The Terminator. Urquidez soundly thrashes both Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, paving the way for a feature showdown with Jackie.

Urquidez's demolition of Biao is especially galling. A two-handed assault on a wave of anonymous henchmen saw Biao blow Chan off the screen. Biao is lithe and perfect in his movement. Chan is fine, incredible even, but Dragons Forever thoroughly demolishes the myth that Jackie performs every single one of his stunts. There are at least four obvious instances of the star being doubled in this sequence - two of which utilise slow motion. These moments jar, even more so following some immaculate near misses from Biao.

Dragons Forever is the kind of film that makes you wish that there was more Hong Kong movie gossip floating around in English. Who doesn't want to read about the conflicts and clashing egos? Was Urquidez brought in for a rematch to keep Chan happy? Did Chan sulk after his directors made zero effort to conceal Chin Kar-lok's doubling? Or is it simply a case of incessant injuries finally starting to add up? Jackie Chan had a leading role in twenty films during the 1980s, a punishing workload for any actor, never mind one who routinely broke his bones and ordered Kodak film by the ton.

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