Knockabout [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (25th February 2023).
The Film

Brothers Big Pao (Fight Back To School 3's Kar-Yan Leung) and Little Pao (Project A's Biao Yuen) have been barely surviving on various small-time con jobs, the latest being the swindling of a gold broker who thinks he has shortchanged Little Pao out of cash for eight ounces of gold only to have to admit his own criminal activity when police Captain Baldy (Aces Go Places' Karl Maka) demands proof. Proving that there is no honor among thieves – even those related by blood – Little Pao tries to cheat Big Pao out of his share, only for the lion's share of the payoff to go missing during their scuffle. After they attempt to swindle Kar Mo Do (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin's Kar-Wing Lau), he thrashes both soundly; whereupon they hit upon a new scheme: get free food and board from the older man by becoming his pupils, with the added benefit of acquiring superior fighting abilities to further their schemes. The pair can find little of apparent use in his monotonous lessons until he demonstrates them practically.

When Kar Mo Do informs them that they have learned enough to fight any ordinary person, the Paos put it to the test behind his back; however, their fighting skills demonstrated in thrashing a gang terrorizing a market vendor for protection money attracts the attention of mysterious Seven Dwarves (Last Hurrah for Chivalry's Hoi-Sang Lee) and effeminate Snow White (Dragon Fist's Kuang Yu Wang) who are actually deadly fighters who have been hunting their teacher. Kar Mo Do informs them that their kung fu is only effective against superior fighters when combined, so he takes on Snow White while they mutually combat Seven Dwarves. The two brothers are disturbed when Kar Mo Do finishes off both men ruthlessly, but believe their teacher is the wronged one. Little Pao witnesses his teacher brutally murder bounty hunter Old Dog (Police Story's Mars) - who has been hunting "Old Fox" for years after a botched bank robbery – whereupon he and Big Pao become a liability to the old man. The pair takes on Old Fox but are no match, and Little Pao manages to escape after Big Pao sacrifices himself. Little Pao craves vengeance for his fallen brother and finds the means from an unexpected source in a wily beggar (Eastern Condors' Sammo Hung) who has been trailing them throughout the film.

One of three early Golden Harvest collaborations between Hung, Maka, and Kar-Wing – the other two being Odd Couple (directed by Kar-Wing) and Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (directed by Maka) – Knockabout is one of the Sammo Hung ventures that pushed handsome and dependable Biao into a lead role – Biao having been the "little brother" of Hung and Jackie Chan during their Peking Opera training days – and treads some familiar plotting grounds that might be vaguely familiar to fans of Chan's Shaolin Wooden Men with the two protagonists learning superior fighting skills from a teacher who turns out to be a villain, and the surviving brother needing a different mentor – previously deemed less important – to fight his old master and avenge his fallen brother. In spite of his athletic skills and charisma, Biao has often been criticized as being bland as a lead. Other films in which Hung has taken a back seat to younger or at least more svelte lead like the duo Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son demonstrate that it is not a matter of disinterest when he is the lead; however, Biao's performance may be less to blame here than a certain listlessness in plotting that affects the first half of the film in which the viewer is given next to no hints at where the story might be heading only to catch on when the brothers ask Old Fox to train them. From that point on, the film continues to be rather pedestrian in plotting but martial arts fans will be thrilled to note that the monotonous, seemingly "useless" training the pair endure under Old Fox is indeed integral to their fighting moves when they take on human opponents. None of the plot twists are surprising, nor are the dramatic elements compelling, but Knockabout is early proof that Hung's magic as a filmmaker is as much in his approach as it is his ambitions which expanded exponentially as he moved into the eighties. Although all three would continue to collaborate – although not all three at the same time (Maka having left Golden Harvest in 1980 to form Cinema City) – Hung, Maka, and Kar-Wing would reunite in 1990 for the buddy cop comedy Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon.


Knockabout was released theatrically stateside by World Northal as "The Jade Warriors" and straight to video in the UK in 1990 in its export cut. While the export cut of the film was available with Japanese subtitles as a laserdisc import, the first American DVD from Tai Seng in 2004 featured the Hong Kong version in Cantonese and Mandarin audio with English subtitles but non-anamorphic since it was a port of the Hong Kong Deltamac DVD. The Fortune Star remaster made its DVD bow in Hong Kong from IVL followed by Fox's American DVD the same year and in the UK from Hong Kong Legends in the Hong Kong cut with a newer English dub. The film made its Blu-ray bow in Scandinavia with only the newer English dub and no original audio.

Last year, England's Eureka Video debuted their own Blu-ray featuring new 2K restorations of both the Hong Kong and export versions. Arrow's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray is identical to the British Blu-ray apart from the logos and menus. It too features both the Hong Kong version (104:44) and the export version (93:04), the latter of which loses one of the film's lengthy comic and action highlights in the scene that both introduces Karl Maka's character and demonstrates some of the smarts of the wily protagonists. Picture quality is a huge step up from the DVDs where the more saturated colors could run a little hot and the blacks and shadows were sometimes indistinguishable (while the latter were sometimes a tad milky). Blacks are deep and saturated colors in the costuming and minor bloodshed really pop against the locations and the period art direction. It may be subjective, but the enhanced resolution does seem to bring out a bit more of Biao's expressiveness often overshadowed by the broad playing of Hung and Kar-Yan (who seems to have gone beyond merely imitating martial arts moves to Hung's style of comic playing).


Audio options for the Hong Kong cut include the original Cantonese mono dub with English subtitles and a hybrid track of the classic English dub with Cantonese audio and English subtitles for those passages – both in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono (the UK disc was LPCM 1.0) – as well as the newer Fortune Star dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Arrow also adds a Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono dub that was not included on the UK edition. Stick to the mono tracks as the newer dub is not only less entertaining but the surround effects do not really add much. Earlier subtitles have referred Biao and Kar-Yan as Taipao (or Daipao) and Yipao while the Eureka subtitles called them Little Boo and Big Boo and Arrow's translation calls them Little Pao and Big Pao. The Eureka and Arrow subtitles also refer to Old Fox's former criminal compatriots as Snow White and Seven Dwarves while the classic English dub referred to the effeminate fighter as "faggot" and the newer dub as "matchmaker" (some earlier subtitle tracks referred to "Snow White" as "painter" while "matchmaker" remained the same).

The export cut comes with the classic English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono. The alternate home video mix included on the Eureka disc which featured some alternate scoring choices is not included here.


The Hong Kong version is accompanied by an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng, NY Asian Film Festival and martial artist/filmmaker Michael Worth – the press release did not mention the participation of Worth and Djeng reveals on the track that it was initially going to be a solo commentary until he learned of Worth's availability – while the export version is accompanied by an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema. Djeng provides an alternate translation for the film's title as "mish-mash kid" referring to the fighting style of the protagonist as well as pointing out the various in-jokes – including one sight gag that reportedly had audiences rolling – and Cantonese wordplay while Worth discusses Hung's evolving technical style in terms of framing, camera movement, and editing. Djeng also notes that the film preceded the Jackie Chan-initiated use of regular voice actors for the leads and notes some possible film influences from the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly-like musical riff to elements from The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Leeder and Venema refer to the film "Yuen Biao's Drunken Master" – noting the rapidity with which the Chan film's influence transformed the genre from serious Shaw Brothers films to martial arts comedy (as well as the opposite with Chan's Police Story and the like paving the way for the more serious "heroic bloodshed" cop thrillers) as well as providing context for things like Kar-Yan's "Beardy" nickname and noting that the film appearances of certain background players prolific enough to be recognized and even earn nicknames in place of their pre-HKMDB filmographies had less to do with a love of acting than a need to stay working since they received no royalties.

The remainder of the extras are ported over from the Hong Kong Legends disc starting with "Heavy Hitter" (7:11), an interview with actor/director Hung who notes his seven years training alongside Biao and known, as his big brother, his training and acting abilities inside and out. He reveals that he was originally supposed to play the lead but gave it to Biao when the younger man asked him to give him anything to do on the film; whereupon, Hung added the beggar character for himself (suggesting that the story was significantly different originally). He also notes that the mix of kung fu styles was a deliberate attempt to show their range and keep things varied for the entertainment of the audience rather than sticking to one fighting style throughout. In "Above the Law" (7:21), actor Bryan “Beardy” Leung Kar-yan notes that he did not have martial arts training but was able to imitate moves, the importance of memory and stamina in choreography – since one shot might include up to seventeen moves and Hung was strict about their accuracy – as well as imitating Hung's acting style since he admits he does not have a naturally comedic personality.

"Monkey Magic" (25:43) is an interview with Grandmaster Chan Sau Chang who discusses in detail and demonstrates the monkey fighting style, while the disc also includes a deleted scene used as a teaser for the Japanese release (3:52) – titled "Back to Red" on the Hong Kong Legends disc. This scene is a prologue that serves as a throwback to the classic martial arts films introducing Biao demonstrating fighting moves against a red background before Hung steps into frame to make sure the audience knows that while he is not the lead he trained both Biao the actor and his character. The disc closes out with the Hong Kong theatrical trailer (4:08). New to the Arrow edition is an extensive image gallery of roughly ninety stills.


The disc comes housed with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady, while the first pressing only includes an illustrated collectors' booklet featuring new writing by Simon Abrams and original press materials (neither supplied for review). A limited edition available directly from Arrow Video USA includes an exclusive slipcover.


Knockabout may not have catapulted Biao Yuen to stardom like his "big brothers" Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan but it serves as a showcase for one of Hong Kong action cinema's most recognizable and dependable supporting actors and stuntmen.


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