Starring Chen Kwan-Tai, Bruce Leung, Teddy Robin Kwan, Wong Yau-Nam, JJ Jia, M.C. Jin, Susan Shaw Yin-Yin, Lo Meng
Directed By Derek Kwok, Clement Cheng
My interest in Gallants was initially piqued after hearing that it marked the big-screen return of Shaw Brothers veterans Chen Kwan-Tai and Lo Meng. Then after learning that ex-Bruce Lee clone Bruce Leung starred alongside as well, nothing short of a ShamWow™ could mop up my steady stream of drooling anticipation. It was an instant sell. After finally getting a chance to see it, the novelty of seeing all of my favorite old-school kung fu heroes together again pales in comparison to the fantastic inspiration and brilliant testament to the fighting spirit that this film delivers. I am in love with Hong Kong cinema again and all I want to do is run outside and jump-kick garbage cans for the next three hours.
Equal parts Rocky, The Karate Kid, and Cocoon, Gallants is as inspirational as these films yet manages to remain a loving product of its homeland. Anybody with even a vague interest in the martial arts will be glued to the screen here, and old school Shaw Brothers fans are especially in for a treat. But what Gallants has to say is transcendent of simple setting and surface visuals. Yes this is a film about the martial arts and the perseverance of the fighting spirit. But even more so, this film deals with everything from courage, redemption, dignity in old age, to the convenient and flashy repackaging of honored philosophies in order to make a quick buck. The rewards that can be reaped from this film are virtually endless. You can cram a theater full of viewers into a screening of Gallants and nearly every person could take away something a little different.
The film begins with Cheung, a scrawny loser caught in a shit real estate job who gets constantly bullied by his coworkers and is sent, without pay, to settle a land dispute in a rural village. He fares no better when he arrives at the village and ends up being bullied by a gang of thugs before being bailed out by the mysterious Tiger (Bruce Leung). Enamored with the skill and courage of the old man, he tracks him down to a kung fu school turned teahouse ran by himself, his friend Dragon (Chen Kwan-Tai), and their young assistant Kwai (J.J. Jia). Cheung, tired of the constant bullying, begs for kung fu lessons from the old men to no avail. It turns out that Tiger and Dragon’s true concerns lie elsewhere. They have been tending to their master, Sifu Law (Teddy Robin), who has been in a coma for the past 30 years after fighting in a legendary kung fu duel. When he finally awakens, he mistakes the young Cheung for his former pupils and along with the old men, vows to restore his kung fu school to its former glory and subjects his ragtag group of students to his harsh training methods.
In concept this film succeeds on nearly every level. Bruce Leung and Chen Kwan-Tai still have that magic, and every time they explode into action on-screen I literally wanted to spring to my feet and cheer them on. Yet, these guys are clearly getting on in their years. Bruce Leung is not the springy, young mummy-fighting Bruce Lee clone he was in The Dragon Lives Again… his character limps along with a bum leg, gasps for breath after a fight, and has to slather on the healing ointment every evening. Chen Kwan-Tai fares a little better, but even his bones are a little more brittle and sore for wear after defending his teahouse from a gang of greedy thugs. Teddy Robin, who is probably more well known for composing film scores (including the fantastic score of Gallants) than for his acting career, is show-stealing here as Sifu Law, he has the swagger of a Dolemite and the homespun wisdom of a Mr. Miyagi. Initially I felt that he was a hard sell as a seasoned kung fu master, but his infectious presence and hilarious performance prevails, pretty much making martial arts skill a moot point. After watching him on-screen here I can imagine no better leader to round out this downtrodden kung fu school of has-beens and misfits. Just watching him drive these old bastards on while munching on a watermelon under an umbrella instantly echoed back to every old man training scene I have ever seen in my history of kung fu movies.
Rounding out the cast is Deadly Venom, Lo Meng (who seems to have taken on the new name, Turbo Law in recent years) who plays the bad guy’s token old dude. Sadly he doesn’t get to do much acting-wise, and his only function is to mainly play foil to Chen Kwan-Tai and reunite the two Shaw Bros. legends in a couple of fantastic (albeit brief) fight scenes.
Nods to old school kung fu fans are sprinkled throughout. The opening credits faithfully duplicate the old Golden Harvest / Lo Wei-directed Bruce Lee movies, complete with the film’s own spin on the Fist of Fury title song. It makes for an instantly classic opening, and is probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen recreated on film. You also get plenty of old-fashioned snap-zooms and the introduction text that accompanies the actors as they make their first appearances on-screen. Although these are sure to bring wistful smiles to the faces of longtime fans, the film is not held back by these brief lapses into nostalgia.
Eventually it all comes together in the end… For any of those stubborn naysayers, Gallants transcends simple homage, novelty-casting, or whatever you want to label it as when it finally draws to a close. The final scene is a beautiful marriage of action, acting, homage, and message, and will leave you with an indelible feeling of inspiration and courage. I loved this movie. Even the moments that were dragged-on or played merely for laughs brought a smile to my face. Hell, even M.C. Jin’s silly-ass rap song at the end made me happy.
It is a wonderful thing to see old legends whose time has seemingly come and gone rise once again to the occasion. Given the chance to shine one more time, they prove that they still have the spirit that made them endearing for so many years. This film is not only a testament to them, but it’s a testament to that ideal.
Author’s Note – If you’ve seen Gallants and want to familiarize yourself with the extensive history of films from its two lead actors, I suggest you check out my previous reviews of Chen Kwan-Tai in Heroes Two and Bruce Leung (as Bruce Leong) in The Dragon Lives Again!