Last Hurrah For Chivalry (1979)
Director: John Woo
Writers: John Woo
Starring: Damian Lau, Pai Wei and Chiu-hua Wei

The Plot: Our film begins with the wedding of Kao, a rich and well respected martial artist who has recently found his wife within the local brothels. She was the most attractive girl in all of the stable, or so he claims, and Kao almost immediately decided to take her for his wife. When Pai, the evil ruling martial artist and most hated villain of Kao’s clan, shows up to ruin this wedding party, Kao learns just why it isn’t smart to marry a prostitute. The girl attempts to kill him at Pai’s request and the clan is left in disarray as many are carried off in body bags. Kao begins to heal but is told by his master that there is no way he could ever take on Pai in a one on one battle. With this in mind, Kao sets off to find a martial artist who could possibly take on this tyrant. He ultimately meets “Magic Sword” Chang (Wei Pai), who has vowed to stop fighting and instead spends his time nursing his poor sick mother. Kao begins to show ulterior motives as he introduces himself to Chang but keeps his plot for revenge hidden from the master swordsman. Chang, who is a bit naive despite his macho behavior, takes Kao to be a trusting friend and begins to help this stranger after he shows courtesy in visiting Chang’s sick mother. Kao eventually sets Chang up by meeting with a local fighter, who Kao has paid to attack his own clan in an attempt to lure Chang out of retirement. His idea is that Chan will attempt to kill the man who hurt his friend’s clan, and Kao then points the finger at the evil Pai so that Chang will do his dirty work. Chang soon teams up with a local assassin named Green, who shares a kindred sentimental attitude, and the two will have to fight against this evil ruling clan but what will they do about Kao and his evil behavior?

The Review
I have known about, but have not searched out, Last Hurrah For Chivalry for roughly a decade at this point. As a life long fan of martial arts cinema and as someone who simply adores John Woo’s Hong Kong work, it would seem only natural that I would travel further into his catalog in order to find the films that ultimately started his legacy, right? That is the way I suppose I should have looked at things, but being a fan of both Kung Fu and the bullet ballets that John Woo made his name with, for some reason I couldn’t imagine the two worlds working as one. I knew John Woo as the filmmaker who made gunfights a respectable form of combat in Hong Kong cinema, and one of the men who helped bring Hong Kong cinema into contemporary times and in line with contemporary views of action cinema. The thought of him working on a potentially generic martial arts film didn’t seem that alluring to me as a viewer. What I failed to realize however was that the things that have made John Woo the spectacular and well known filmmaker that he is, are partly what brought his mentor Chang Cheh that same amount of respect and success.

If you are a fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong work and you have not seen Last Hurrah For Chivalry, I have to urge you to do so. Don’t do what I did! Search this one out as soon as possible, because it acts as both a blueprint for this filmmaker’s style and the inevitable turns in his career. While doing this it also acts as simply a very well crafted piece of martial arts cinema. Replacing pistols with swords, Woo ably handles the action in the same manner that would make him famous in years to come. There are instances of heightened drama where slow motion is employed to showcase the intricate choreography at play, and one can’t help but see reflections of later films where we would see Chow Yun-Fat rolling in slow motion after his eyes had been blinded. Woo’s wandering camerawork doesn’t go as full steam ahead as his later works would, but he still manages to inject that same life within the work. Despite being made right before the beginning of the eighties, in the height of Kung Fu mania within Hong Kong, the film seems to have a more modern feel to it despite the use of former Shaw Bros. alumni and the film obviously having all the makings of your run of the mill martial arts epic.

I find it interesting how at this stage in his career, the reverence John Woo had for Chang Cheh is so present throughout the film. The slow motion, which he would later popularize, was certainly a staple of Chang Cheh’s work. Woo would go on to use it in a much more dramatic fashion than Cheh normally did, and that is expertly demonstrated in this film. As the melodrama begins to peak throughout the film, with questions of brotherhood and loyalty always at a boil, we see the fermentation of John Woo as a filmmaker and yet we see a loyalty and appreciation for his former mentor. The music, the slow motion and the melodrama come in intervals and sting the audience at just the right moments; fully engaging them with the film in the process. I am also reminded of Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang’s work with other martial arts cult classics, such as Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (AKA: Mortal Combat, Crippled Avengers) where we once again saw a martial artist who’s family had been killed, and in the process of searching out vengeance became a villain himself. While the ties are loose, at their very best, I couldn’t help but think of that previously mentioned film while watching things unravel because it is such a unique plot device and is so uncommon in every other form of dramatic storytelling. Naturally, when someone has something bad happen to them, you want to see them become better through that horrible action. You don’t imagine them becoming evil, themselves. This slight twist in the psychology of the film is partly what makes it such an alluring and engaging piece of Kung Fu cinema.
I was also never a massive fan of Wai Pei before going into Last Hurrah For Chivalry, he was also that member of the original Five Deadly Venoms that some (like myself) had a distaste for primarily because he soon left the group and the Shaw Bros. after their first official year of stardom. Why I held a distaste for the man for something such as that, I do not know, but I will say that he is fantastic in his role here and truly proves himself to be leading man potential without any doubts. Balancing the action with the drama, Last Hurrah… contains legitimate acting prowess by several members of the cast including Wai Pei himself. The character of Chang is both incredibly heroic and brave, yet he is brash and naive as well. He takes everyone at face value and this proves to be his downfall, while the slightly more world weary Green (Damian Lau) has that same courage and strength but is slightly more knowledgeable in the ways of the world. The brotherhood and bonds that are forged between these two are ever believable and even rivals the relationship between Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in John Woo’s masterpiece The Killer, as far as I am concerned. The period setting and the performance of Wai Pei gives this kindred brotherhood a more powerful meaning than I ever expected it could have, and ultimately we are left with a very strong film that defies even its own genre.

The fight choreography is spectacular throughout. I am not sure who helped get the choreography down, but they did a fantastic job. I am usually not overly excited about swordsmanship within the martial arts genre, but the way the film mixes up the aesthetics and the well played choreography of the main cast really leaves the movie looking good. Yes, even with all of the interesting plot developments and twisting of narrative – this is still an action movie at heart and it delivers, with gusto!

The Conclusion
I’m really conflicted as to where I should rate this. While I hate to give it too much praise and ruin it for others who come in expecting it to deliver things that it simply can not, my gut instinct is to give it my highest rating due to how much I loved and enjoyed the film. In days, since watching, it still sticks with me and I find myself pondering these well crafted characters. I give the movie a five out of five, but I label it with that while also telling others that part of the reason I love this film so much is due to the context of it being a John Woo film and my being a fan of his. I am unsure what kind of reaction the film will get from others who dislike Woo’s work. For my own entertainment though, this one is hard to beat.

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