Lo Wei fails once again to make Jackie his new Bruce in this tepid, although not altogether dreadful, tale of revenge…
Dragon Fist sits on the crossroads of two big careers. Lo Wei, struggling to repeat the success his Bruce Lee vehicles, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist Of Fury (1972), and Jackie Chan, about to change the face of kung fu movies via Drunken Master (1978). One in, one out, so to speak.
Tong Huo Wan’s master is challenged after winning a martial arts tournament by the arrogant and silver-haired master Chung (Yen Shi-Kwan, the main villain from 1993’s Iron Monkey). Master Tong is fatally wounded and Huo Wan (Jackie Chan) takes his sister (Nora Miao) and mother on a quest for (yawn) revenge. So far, so familiar. Meanwhile Chung’s wife, so disappointed with her husband’s behaviour, hangs herself in an effort to steer him back onto a moral path. It does the trick (she couldn’t just sit down and have a cup of tea and a firm chat with him?) and Chung takes the rest of his family off into voluntary exile, starting a new life as the head of the subtly named, Patience clan.
When Huo Wan and family catch up with him he’s also cut off his own leg as penance; he was a master of the Tong kick. Seeing that Chung is now a pious (and let’s not forget patient) man, who has both learnt from and paid the price for his crime, Huo Wan’s sister and mother just want to forgive and move on. Huo Wan however still feels the need to dragon fist someone – anyone. He’s tricked into doing the dirty work for the Ngai gang, a bunch of local drug smugglers, desperate to get Master Chung out of the picture. By the end of the film though Huo Wan is fighting for the right team, and alongside the killer of his former master.
1979’s Dragon Fist is early Jackie Chan, he’s credited as Jacky, not Jackie. Actually made before Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978) but released after these two, seminal, works put Jackie firmly on the martial arts map. And it shows. The difference between Lo Wei’s plodding, straight-faced efforts and Yuen Woo-Ping’s fluid and playful approach, where Jackie had the space to play the kind of role he’d been aching to, feels decades, not years apart.
The film was produced at the tail end of Lo Wei’s failed attempt to mould Jackie Chan into the next Bruce Lee and Dragon Fist suffers heavily from his lazy efforts to remake / re-tread the success of his own and Bruce Lee vehicles, The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury . Perhaps he should have concentrated less on horse racing and more on filmmaking; the director was notorious for listening to the horse racing results whilst on set. Bruce Lee connections are plentiful. As well as Lo Wei, you also have, on-screen, Nora Miao and James Tien (one of Master Chung’s key aides), both of whom starred in The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury, Miao was also in Way Of The Dragon (1972). And Dragon Fist’s title was obviously an attempt to cash-in on the success of Way of The Dragon and Enter the Dragon (1973). Desperate or what? But who could blame him with his film company on the brink of bankruptcy?
It’s no surprise the film isn’t any good. Although it’s also a shame as there’s a great story with some nice ideas buried in Dragon Fist; a villainous master turned good, forgiveness versus vengeance, the un-channelled anger of a righteous but naïve young man going unchecked. In the hands of a more competent director like, say, Lau Kar-Leung (Liu Chia-Liang for the Shaw Brothers fan out there…) you may have had a thought-provoking follow up to something like Challenge Of The Masters (1976), that complicated the simplicity of revenge. Instead, we have a plodding, characterless 90 minutes that at best can be described as a waste of Jackie Chan.
The grand story is as grand as the production values are low, endless fighting on paths, empty temples and towns where no one lives except the main cast. Jackie Chan’s character seems irrelevant and has little or no impact on the story’s direction or fails to undergo even the most basic of development. Yes, he hits lots of bad guys but even this is uneventful and far from exciting; the fighting isn’t terrible it’s just not memorable. It’s easy to see why Lo Wei’s film company did eventually go bankrupt.
Dragon Fist lacks any real flair then and is hard to recommend to anyone outside of Jackie Chan completists.
Dragon Fist is available on UK (Region B) Blu-ray, with a Limited Edition O-Card slipcase and Collectors’ Postcards Set for the first print run only.