Dragon Fight (1989)
|Directed by: Billy Tang
Written by: James Yuen
Producer: Henry Fong
Starring: Jet Li, Stephen Chow, Nina Li, Dick Wei, Henry Fong, Mark Williams & Tom Spinoza
We know Jet Li was looking to breakthrough in Hong Kong cinema after the success of his Mainland trilogy of martial arts films (Shaolin Temple, Kids From Shaolin and Martial Arts From Shaolin) but what was Billy Tang, future king of the early to mid 90s Category III exploitation trying to do with his career? It's not as widely documented as expected but his debut movie here shot on location in San Francisco is a standout in his career when looking the personnel he got paired up with. In addition to Jet, you have funnyman Stephen Chow just on the brink of movie stardom in a vehicle against type. They all got their time in the spotlight, two out of mentioned trio more than others but hey Billy, a sparse fan base is better than none at all eh? And that sparse fan base I'm sure wouldn't want the rather indistinct, anonymous debut by Tang to remained unwatched. The fan base for Jet Li and Stephen Chow I doubt would have the patience for it, despite the fact it is talent in the making growing on screen.
Jimmy (Jet Li) and Tiger (Dick Wei) are on a martial arts demonstration tour in San Francisco (cue some real life connection to Jet as he as a youngster even performed at The White House). Tiger clearly feels left out and not in the spotlight as much and decides not to board the plane home. Jimmy spots him, tries to talk him out of it but ends up being accused for a murder of a policeman Tiger kills as he flees the airport. After a fortunate escape from the police, Jimmy ends up in the house of Andy (Stephen Chow) and his uncle who runs a grocery store while Tiger tries to climb the ladder within the gangster organization Marco (producer Henry Fong) heads. Their paths are about to cross again, with elements such as illegal immigrant Penny (Nina Li and future wife of Jet Li's) and a bag of cocaine being crucial...
Still reminding us of Jet's mainland days and skills as a Wushu performers with the opening demo reel, Billy Tang may steer this boat to America but is remaining rather faithful to how a Hong Kong movie would sound and feel like. It means Jet is on his needed transition towards stardom and not being stuck in Shaolin Temple-ways. We've got a lot of people to thank on this production obviously because any minor progress on a path IS progress. Dragon Fight may contain some glorious action but then and certainly not now with the bulk of the careers of Tang, Li and Chow done, there's no obvious evidence of stardom being formed before our eyes. Dragon Fight is simple and undemanding however, a fine positive if you're looking for a bit of distraction and it impresses nowadays.
No huge, poignant chords are struck by Tang in the storytelling department. It's unsubtle tangents on Tiger feeling disillusioned about the lack of freedom in China and he wants to lay the land of hope and dreams he's in at his feet. Jimmy stays true to the homeland, relying on notions of fate but having said all this, this relationship is believable for the movie. Even the jump into crime for Dick Wei's character doesn't seem far fetched. The subplot about Stephen Chow's addiction to gambling (he is the light sidekick mostly otherwise but expect no trademark comedy) is horribly unexplored and Nina Li's transition from illegal immigrant to lover of Henry Fong's Marco just happen without explanation. They need to as a catalyst for action and Dick Wei's choreography overall delivers despite leaps of logic in the story.
The powerful nature of Wei combined with the quickness of Jet makes for some interesting, fast action scenes. We get a clear look at the proceedings and Jet obviously is accustomed to on-screen action as well as tackling the transition needed working for a Hong Kong choreographer. The production also had resources at their hand around the city of San Francisco and gets to do fairly impressive car stunts and other physical stunts involving the Western cast. It's pretty much the ending reel that shines, with Jet and Dick exchanging blows at a rapid and extensive pace as well as going down a weapons route amidst themselves and even impressively against the Western cast.
It all makes Dragon Fight an essential watch for the fans as it doesn't take much knowhow or concentration from you. Expect what can be expected from the early career of the personnel (the only glimpse of Category III Billy Tang we get is a strip club scene. Always worth something) and what we see, is on occasion quite something and notable even. Without Jet, Stephen or Billy, the same movie would've still made minor impact on the Hong Kong cinema scene but it could even be remembered fondly had it other action or comedy personnel. Remember that, use that as an perspective.
The DVD (Cine Club, Germany):
Video: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0, English Dolby Digital 2.0 and German Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitles: English and German.
* Trailers for Dragon Fight (English under the title of The Defector and German), Angel Town, Fist Of The North Star, Shootfighter 1 & 2, Bloodsport 3 & 4, Virgin Apocalypse, Run And Kill, Cat's Eye and Die Nackten & Die Bestien.
* The Kung Fu Years (aka This Is Kung Fu), bonus feature length documentary on Jet Li. German audio only.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson