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Review: Dreadnaught

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Although the Criterion Channel’s description neglects to advertise it as such, the 1981 kung-fu horror-comedy Dreadnaught belongs to Yuen Woo-ping’s loosely connected Wong Fei-hung series. Whereas the original Drunken Master featured the historical figure turned folk hero as a mischievous student (portrayed by the inimitable Jackie Chan) and Iron Monkey explored his childhood (as the son of professional badass Donnie Yen), this film depicts him as a wise old mentor—played, appropriately enough, by Kwan Tak-hing, who starred as the character in approximately seventy-seven movies (according to the notoriously reliable Wikipedia’s undoubtedly accurate count, anyway).

The plot (minimalistic as it is) revolves around Mousy, a meek, cowardly youth constantly terrorized by local thugs, corrupt cops, and… adorable puppies. Since it’s his job to collect on overdue bills for his sister’s struggling laundry business, his timid demeanor is a significant problem; thus, at the insistence of a sympathetic friend, he seeks tutelage under the esteemed Master Wong. The perceptive teacher quickly intuits that his reluctant disciple is a naturally gifted martial artist; he merely lacks the confidence required to effectively utilize his innate skills. When a convoluted sequence of events makes him the target of a deranged, bloodthirsty assassin, however, necessity might yet transform our pussycat of a protagonist into a courageous lion.

Yuen’s greatest talent lies in his ability to convey story and characterization through fight choreography, and Dreadnaught certainly delivers in that regard; every punch calls back to a narrative seed introduced in an earlier scene—a deliciously satisfying display of setup and payoff reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. During the climactic showdown, for example, Mousy discovers that his family’s trademark “two-fingered grasp” technique is useful for more than just drying clothes; his firm grip strength—developed from years of wringing out wet fabric—gives him an unexpected advantage whilst grappling with his savage opponent… until his foe simply rips off the tattered remnants of his shirt, at least.

That deft juggling of tones—effortlessly transitioning between humor and suspense—elevates Dreadnaught, compensating for its relatively superficial flaws (particularly its uneven pacing). Yuen is justifiably renowned for his contributions to The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I hope that more of his work as a director becomes (legally) available in the West; while his movies may not be conventionally “prestigious” or stylistically polished (compared to those produced by, say, King Hu), they are consistently entertaining.

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