Monday, October 6, 2008

The Prodigal Son

The Action Mutant…
and Boom Goes the Dynamite!

The Prodigal Son

review by Joe Burrows

In looking through many writings, opinions and out-and-out drudgery, there’s one thing I notice when it comes to criticisms of Action films…there’s very little Yuen Biao love! Out of the famed “Three Brothers” that originated in Hong Kong, Biao is the one that is rarely ever praised or even heard of. Of course, Jackie Chan is praised, exalted, worshiped and over-praised to no end (many times, here in these very scribes). The same is true with Sammo, although to a lesser degree in America after the failure of Martial Law. But Yuen has always been the distant third when it comes to relevancy amongst the Three Brothers. In The Essential Jackie Chan Sourcebook, more than one time is it mentioned that Yuen is shuffled off into the background, while Sammo & Jackie (well, mostly Jackie) take center stage (either seemingly by design or by happenstance). Despite an incredible amount of athleticism that is near that or equal to his two contemporaries, Biao has never been able to grab the attention that Sammo or Jackie has had at one point or another. With that knowledge, I take this to you, dear reader: let today be known as Yuen Biao Love Day! Go onto your message boards, chat rooms, forums, places of work, eat & play and profess your Yuen Biao Love! This particular film I’m reviewing here will make that proclamation a lot easier to make, too! (Note: You can still profess your Sammo Hung & Jackie Chan Love, as well. In fact, declare one day Hung Love Day. You will get a giggle, even if it’s just from yourself.).

The Plot, as it was:
Yuen Biao stars as Leung Chang, the most unbeatable street fighter in Canton…at least, that’s what he’s lead to believe. Turns out his father has been paying people princely sums of money to take dives for his son so he doesn’t get hurt. A run in with an opera actor named Leung Yee Tai (Ching-Ying Lam) leaves Chang embarrassed & wanting the actor’s guidance as his teacher. Yee Tai continuously refuses, leaving Chang to seek training from Yee Tai’s bumbling brother Wong Wah Bo (Hung) instead. Meanwhile, Lord Ngai Fai (Frankie Chan) is looking to prove himself against the best fighter there is but is also protected because of his status. Through complicated circumstances, Ngai & Chang will fight each other for pride (and eventually, revenge).

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Even though Yuen Biao’s a pretty big element to the success of The Prodigal Son, there are a few other key ones that make it better than the usual kung fu collaboration. The multi-collaborative fight choreography of Biao, Hung, Lam, Billy Chan & Guy Lai is the main jewel, as the fights are steeped in the old school but still very fluid & impact filled. The sensibility may be steeped in the past but the fights are so crisply done that is shouldn’t scare away fans expecting all kinds of crazy mugging & insane falls (yes, kids…Jackie’s nowhere in sight…and that’s ok!). One of the film’s better aspects is its plotting & characterization, which are almost foreign words in a great deal of “chop socky” fare. The story is set up in such a way that the main characters’ motivations are ideal and not just simplistic “good v. evil” stuff. Both Chang & Ngai’s goals appeal to a wide audience and that leads to them not being classified as standard heroes or villains. It might be complicated stuff to those just looking for the fights but those looking for more meat in the frame work will be pleasantly surprised. Biao & Lam provide plenty of fun moments that are interspersed with the more serious overtones but when Hung shows up for his small role, the movie kind of grinds to a halt for a bit. The scenes featuring Hung on his own (while funny in their own right) take away from the flick’s momentum for a while & almost leave it in danger of becoming too goofy. However, the rails get righted in time for a stellar final fight, which helps put The Prodigal Son in classic company that is comparable to Hung’s earlier masterwork, Magnificent Butcher.

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- James Tien, who was a regular in many Bruce Lee films (Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection and Game of Death), is the street opponent for Lord Ngai.

Body Count/Violence: 16. The potent fights are the draw but there is enough blood & mayhem for The Prodigal Son to justify its R rating (as sometimes, the ratings for Martial Arts films are questionable at best). The crazy fight scenes, which include lots of heady falls & furniture breakage, are accompanied by throat slashing, a pair of beheadings, arm breaking, swordplay, stabbing, fire use, etc. The fights include more blood than one may expect, including a pretty nasty, blood splattering headbutt during the end fight.

Sexuality/Nudity: None.

Language/Dialogue: Hardly any, though Wong does call someone a “fag” at one point. It is largely know that gay slurs don’t carry the same heft in Asian entertainment as they do here.

How bad was it?:
There’s nothing but a unanimous vote of approval for this film, as far as the critics are concerned. It recieved lots of glowing praise, as well as a few even calling it a modern Martial Arts classic. No arguments here.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Golden Harvest released The Prodigal Son on 12/22/81, with the film grossing $9.2 million HK in a three week run. It is available on DVD through Tai Seng or on the 20th Century Fox/Fortune Star label.

Film: ***1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ****1/2/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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