Yuen Biao never got the acclaim that his Peking Opera brothers Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan obtained (all part of the Seven Little Fortunes), but for martial art movie fans he is still widely appreciated. His breakout in the Hong Kong film industry was his first starring role in Knockabout in 1979. Of course, it helped that the director was Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, but Yuen's reputation was solid for his years of stunt work, being an extra and doubling actors for dangerous or acrobatic scenes (he would continue to do that after this film). This film is full of underappreciated martial artists and performers though.
Knockabout is the fourth film directed by Sammo Hung and is one of the many hybrid Kung Fu comedies (Mo Lai Tau style) produced by Golden Harvest that were popular in the late 70's Hong Kong like Drunken Master (1978) and Hung's earlier film Enter the Fat Dragon (1978). While it was not the resounding success that Drunken Master was, it has had a resurgence in popularity the past few years.
Biao stars as Hei Yu (also called Little John in the subtitles) as a congenial con-artist with his brother Big John (Leung Kar-Yan: Warriors Two, The Postman Strikes Back) who have to cheat or steal to stay fed. After a successful scam on a cheating gold exchange cashier (working off the old adage that the best people to con are the ones who think they are conning you), they decide to gamble their profit at the local casino. They are quite unsuccessful at it and get beat up when unbeknownst to them they try to fool a gambling house with fake money. But like the consummate con-men they are, if they fail once, they will look for another mark. The new rube is an elderly man (the not-so-elderly and underrated Lau Kar-Wing who is mostly known for being the brother of Lau Kar-Leung, though he is an excellent martial artist who has appeared in many supporting roles) who is eating at the local teahouse. Their set-up fails miserably and so they set to take revenge on Jia Wu-Dao by ambushing him. Of course, he just happens to be a Kung Fu master. After they get beat up they ask him to be their sifu. He eventually acquiesces, but there seems to be something mysterious and sinister about him.
There are a few problems with the film. Karl Maka's role as the bald inspector reminds me too much of a clone of Dean Shek. The composition of the film is unbalanced. It starts mostly with comedy for the first 50 minutes and then ends heavily with action. I liked both elements, but the cohesion of the two did not quite work as a whole. The plot's biggest weakness is the inevitable turn of Jia Wu-Dao against his pupils. You knew it was going to happen, but it felt forced. And the prolific use of lifting copyrighted material for music continues with the cue for the Fat Beggar lifted from Ennio Morricone's score in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).
Luckily, there is so much to like with this movie. Biao and Leung work well together as brothers and would continue to work with Hung on later films. The portrayal of Jia Wu-Dao by Lau Kar-Wing is interesting because he is not a one-dimensional character. He cares for his adopted pupils and trains them well in martial arts (every good teacher always hides something from his students though). This makes the character change more shocking, but also makes it feel less real. I enjoyed the comedic touches like the overly flexible Yuen Biao (that is not his leg) and the ordinary men they look to beat up.
However, the best parts of the film are the training and martial art sequences in the last half of the movie. These segments are so strong that you tend to forget the somewhat meandering and mostly comedic nature of the previous scenes. The training involves some of the more masochistic devices to help, and I will not spoil them here. I will state that you get to see Biao show off his abilities with his excellent forms and most awesome somersaulting ability. The fighting scenes include an excellent team match between Seven Dwarfs (Lee Hoi-Sang: bald as usual), Snow White (Wang Kuang-Yu: The Water Margin (1972)) versus Little John and Big John. Also, I think you might enjoy the "finishing move" of Jia Wu-Dao. I am not sure I've seen much use of this professional wrestling move in Hong Kong cinema, but I have seen The Rock use it many times. Also, in the tradition of saving the best for last, you get a 12 minute fight sequence at the end that is sublime in its intestinal fortitude.
Sammo Hung was not only the director and a supporting actor in this film; he is also the action director (fans of the auteur theory should take note). His knowledge and presence help make this one of the underrated classics in martial art cinema. The competition between him and Jackie Chan during this time period helped create more intricate and daring martial art scenes for there movies. With Knockabout there is one of the best martial art movie sequences of the 70s. Knockabout is a must watch for devotees of this genre and should be a good case study for future action directors on how to choreograph. Knockabout also shows you the skill of Yuen Biao and why he should be regarded as one of the best martial art actors of the 1970s/80s.
The Fox/Fortune Star R1 release is a very good basic release. There are no dubtitles and the film is uncut. There is an English dub, a genuine Cantonese mono track and it is presented in a beautifully looking widescreen transfer. Unfortunately, like most of the Fox/Fortune Star releases you only get trailers as extras. Here is another example where the best release is the R2 Hong Kong Legends version (like so many of the Hong Kong martial art films on the Fox/Fortune releases).