Dreadnaught [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (15th May 2022).
The Film

Little Geung (The Prodigal Son's Biao Yuen) is far too timid to collect laundry bills from local bullies but is equally afraid of the wrath of his big sister (The Young Master's Lily Li). Brother Foon (The Postman Strikes Back's Ka-Yan Leung), chief pupil of healer and martial artist Wong Fei Hung (The Magnificent Butcher's Tak-Hing Kwan), takes pity on Geung and attempts to get his master to take the younger man under his wing. Foon also tries to build up Geung's confidence by recklessly picking fights with such toughs like Big Talker (We're Going to Eat You's Chun-Wah Lee) of the local theater troupe and even passing Geung off as Wong Fei Hung himself to intimidate opponents and impress the ladies. The latter leads to a case of mistaken identity that places Geung in even more danger when Wong Fei Hung's rival in the lion dance contest Master Tam (Heart of Dragon's Phillip Ko), having been humiliated by the older man at a practice match, sets fugitive killer White Fronted Tiger (Drunken Master's Shun-Yee Yuen) after him. After a standoff against officers from the seven provinces that resulted in all of their deaths as well as that of his wife (Kung Fu Hustle's Qiu Yuen), White Fronted Tiger has been hiding in the troupe but is easily stirred to violence by an aural trigger. When one of the theatre troupe is murdered, dim Chief Constable Bao (The Story of Ricky's Mei Sheng Fan) dismisses the idea that the culprit could be White Fronted Tiger and believes it to be a crime of passion due to the dagger in the victim's crotch but he is on the right trail by investigating the members of the troupe. When Foon makes the connection between the troupe and the "masked phantom" stalking Geung, Tam lures him and his master into an ambush by the formidable White Fronted Tiger; however, even Wong Fei Hung may have underestimated the untested abilities of his newest pupil.

Another attempt to launch Biao Yuen "little brother" of Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan as a leading actor, Dreadnaught differs from other such ventures like Knockabout in that Biao Yuen is not under the wing of Hung or Chan, and the murder of a "brother" at the hands or feet of the villain does not lead to a third act stretch of the protagonist training to fight under a master; instead, the event happens in the last fifteen minutes in which the "mousy" protagonist fumbles his way through a fight for survival in which his master sees parallels between ancient fighting styles and Geung's laundry sorting and hanging maneuvers (with the final shot in which the hero collapses in exhaustion seemingly a parodic nod to the endings of other such films in which the protagonist receives as much damages as he metes out). The structure is rather scattershot with a heavy emphasis on the whodunit in spite of showing us throughout that White Fronted Tiger is triggered to relive a trauma a la For a Few Dollars More via a sound trigger and the resultant carnage is a bit more brutal than the norm but never strays into Category III territory. The more comedic antics involving Foon's attempts to instill confidence in Geung including trying to make him appear heroic in the eyes of a love interest (The Invincible Killer's Ching Tang) by dressing up as the masked killer only for the real one to attack are broken up by two lion dances, the second one interminably long at nearly ten minutes but demonstrating some neat footwork by occasionally-doubled Tak-Hing Kwan who played Wong Fei Hong in a series of over fifty movies from 1949 to 1970 and would play him several more times as a guest star in other works such as this one. Without the guiding hand of Sammo Hung and under the direction of Woo-Ping Yuen (Iron Monkey), Yuen Biao actually does seem to flourish in a role that requires him to be passive and craven much of the time, and his character's moves were paid homage in the otherwise forgettable Batman Fovever in a laundry-related scene.


Released stateside by Tai Seng on non-anamorphic DVD and in the UK from Hong Kong Legends in an anamorphic transfer trimmed for animal cruelty (which surprisingly did get passed by the BBFC this time around as a "quick animal kill"), Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 2K restoration with richly saturated colors from the location greenery to White Fronted Tiger's theatrical make-up and some bloodshed. While detail is vastly improved over the DVDs, a certain softness remains (and Michael Worth speculates on the commentary that it had to do with the Kowa anamorphic lenses used for the film).


Audio options include original dubbed Cantonese LPCM 2.0 mono, the classic English dub in LPCM 2.0 mono as well as an alternate home video mix which seems quite similar. There may be come minor musical differences but the impression with the home video track is that the levels are better judged with the highs of the musical cues less likely to clip at the high ends. Optional English subtitles are offered for the Cantonese track and a separate track is engage with the English dubs for text.


As per the usual with Eureka's Hong Kong releases of late, the film is accompanied by a pair of audio commentaries. On the audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng, NY Asian Film Festival, and filmmaker Michael Worth the latter not mentioned in publicity materials because he was not originally intended to participate they discuss the film as a hybrid of various elements from martial arts to slasher, the career of Tak-Hing Kwan as Wong Fei Hung, as well as noting that Ka-Yan Leung was playing the role that Yuen Biao would essay in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China, the appearance of the Wong Fei Hung theme song in the score, opine that the Lion Dance is among the finest captured on film, as well as Wong Fei Hung's Confucion humanism as a theme running through the films in which his character appears. Worth also notes that a number of the film's martial arts highlights are actually fights "disguised" as other actions, including Wong Fei Hung's encounter with the "Demon Tailor" (Police Story's Hark-On Fung). On the audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema, the pair note that Ka-Yan Leung and Yuen Biao are portraying the opposite of the characters they played in Knockabout, filmmaker Woo-Ping Yuen and the collaborative nature of his family who worked on the film's stunts, how Tak-Hing Kwan was so synonymous with the role of Wong Fei Hung that he even appeared in birth control commercials in character, likening the resurgence of it as a money-making scam in contemporary Hong Kong to "twerking" for cash, and speaking more excitedly about Ko and his career under IFD's Godfrey Ho.

The disc also includes an interview with actress Lily Li (21:40) from 2006 in which she recalls training at Shaw, leaving Shaw for Golden Harvest, and then returning to Shaw on a picture-by-picture basis rather than a contract, working with Jackie Chan on The Young Master, and her admiration for Yuen Biao while working with him on a handful of film including Dreadnaught. The disc closes out with the Hong Kong theatrical trailer (4:51) and a U.S. home video trailer (1:33).


The disc is housed with a reversible cover, and the first 2,000 copies come with a limited edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling and a 27-page collector's booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver with "Something Old, Something New - Yuen Biao hits the spin-cycle: Dreadnaught" in which he describes the film as offering "very nearly a comprehensive history of Hong Kong action cinema up to that point, a portrait of the industry in microcosm" in terms of the careers of the film's two Yuens and the cinema notables attached to both of them, as well as the use of the Wong Fei Hung character, and the film's treatment of familiar genre tropes.


Without the guiding hand of Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao actually does seem to flourish in Dreadnaught, even in a role that requires him to be passive and craven much of the time.


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