Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Sze To On
Cast: John Liu, Dragon Lee, Tino Wong Cheung, Chung Liang, Philip Ko Fei, Chiang Kam, Chan Lau, Alexander Grand, Mars, David Wu Tai Wai, Lee Hang, Mars
Running Time: 87 min.
By Martin Sandison
In the 1990’s one distribution company released some of the greatest old school kung ku movies ever made: Eastern Heroes. As a young kid in my mid teens growing up in the UK they opened up a world that I will be eternally grateful for. One of the first ones I watched at that time was The Dragon, The Hero. I immediately fell in love with the movie, and rewatching it for this review was a delight. Especially since it was a widescreen decent quality print in Mandarin, released by Vengeance video the company created by Toby Russell. He formed Eastern Heroes with another great figure in kung fu movie history, Ricky Baker. Their knowledge of the genre knows no bounds.
Apparently The Dragon, The Hero was a huge hit in the cinemas on 42nd Street in New York in the 70’s, and it’s easy to see why. An insane combination of classic kung fu movie tropes and psychedelic weirdness, it really is a unique picture. This is despite the fact that it is directed by who Eastern Heroes called ‘the boss of dross’ Godfrey Ho. A man that needs no introduction, he has arguably made some of the worst films in history. For my money The Dragon, The Hero is his best film (that I’ve seen, there are a lot!) alongside Ninja Terminator. The star of the film is that wonderful super kicker John Liu, one of my favourite Martial Arts movie stars. At this point he had appeared in some of the classics of the time such as Secret Rivals 1, Secret Rivals 2 and Invincible Armour, and had established himself. His costar is Tino Wong, who was also in Invincible Armour (his best role IMO). Appearing in a small role one of the best Bruce Lee imitators Dragon Lee who hams it up to the maximum. The villain is that matchless genius Phillip Ko, who really gets to break loose in terms of his villainy and varying styles of kung fu. His partner in crime Chan Lau puts in a performance that has to be seen to be believed.
The plot involves Liu and Wong as sons of the Strike Rock Fist Masters who meet by chance and are enemies at first. They both get involved with Ko and Lau, the latter a wheelchair bound criminal and the former Lau’s partner in crime and superb Martial Artist who seems to know every style around. There are some special small touches that create a great atmosphere in this picture, and each star gets his own. John Liu fells a tree with a single kick and has a cool ‘Mysterious hand’ technique that sets up some of his best handwork. Tino Wong gets some awesome training scenes with a portly master who is prone to smoking a cigarette (joint?) between each finger before expertly dispatching them against a wall. Phillip Ko has to defeat his enemies in the time it takes for his personalised egg timer to run down, complete with running sand high on the soundtrack. The psychedelia really kicks in when it comes to Chan Lau’s character, with trippy music and visuals creating scenes that are seriously strange and powerful.
The choreographer of the movie is Tang Tak Cheung, who began his career as a bit part actor in early Shaw Brothers films. His most well known film as choreographer is the great Billy Chong starrer Kung Fu Zombie, which also featured Chan Lau as a Taoist Priest. Although not as crazily constructed as the aforementioned film, the action in The Dragon, The Hero is straight out of the top drawer. Long takes featuring various styles are the order of the day, with each performer at the top of his game. The quality is pretty consistent, and the ending amps up to superb levels. Dragon Lee’s nunchaku fights are a joy to behold, especially for me as they were edited out of the VHS version I grew up with. The use of reverse cinematography, that technique so inventive in kung fu cinema, is present here with Liu moving from the splits to a standing stance and Ko using the deadly art of Sun Ta to go from a prone position to standing in an instant. The best use of it happens at the end as Lau becomes more and more crazed, and a shot with a fish eye lens cuts to a super weird reverse shot. Who could believe this innovation was created by Godfrey Ho! Ko uses about a half a dozen styles throughout, and arguably his fight with Liu matches their duel in Mar’s Villa (another stone cold classic).
The music in the film deserves special mention, with the main theme taken from my favourite Spaghetti Western score for the movie The Big Gundown, by Ennio Morricone. First used in Secret Rivals, here it works at an even higher level, complimenting the action superbly. It’s all part of the similarity between the two genres. In turn the hip hop band Wu Tang Clan member Genius Gza sampled The Dragon, The Hero especially the parts featuring the main theme for his album Liquid Swords, one of the best Wu Tang records.
Predictably the plot of the film is perfunctory and uninvolving, and the plot twists are obvious. And as usual the Western actors are terrible and add nothing to the film. A sub plot featuring that great bit part actor the rotund Chiang Kam is very silly and adds next to nothing. These are minor quibbles however, in what for my money is one of the most entertaining old school movies.
Martin Sandison’s rating: 9/10