Director: Lau Kar Wing
Writer: Chan Shu, Yuen Gai Chi
Producer: Lau Kar Wing
Cast: Alan Tam, Andy Lau, Max Mok Siu Chung, Ken Tong Chun Yip, Norman Chu Siu Keung, Michael Miu Kiu Wai, William Ho Ka Kui, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Stanley Fung, Kent Cheng, Ku Feng, Lau Kar Wing, Shing Fui On, Philip Ko Fei, Wayne Archer, Charlie Cho Cha Lei, Kara Hui Ying Hung, Blacky Ko Sau Leung, Nick Masters, O Chun Hung, Pak Man Biu, Sin Ho Ying
Running Time: 88 min.
Andy Lau and Alan Tam must have had a good offscreen friendship during the late 80′s or 90′s, or maybe the same agent, since they managed to star in at least three movies together in that period. Thankfully, the two actors made for quite the dynamic duo, especially in action films. Much like in their ’91 collaboration “The Last Blood,” Andy and Alan are two of the only ones left standing for the heroic bloodshed-style finale at the end of “The Dragon Family.”
And what an ending it is: “Dragon Family” features what has to be the one of the earliest instances of gun fu as Alan Tam, Andy Lau, and Max Mok take on a warehouse of evil Triad scum with guns blazing, martial arts fighting, and even some fencing, all choreographed by Lau Kar-leung (“36th Chamber of Shaolin,” “Mad Monkey Kung Fu“). Kar-leung has a small supporting role and the film itself was directed by his younger brother, Lau Kar-wing. Although “Dragon Family” isn’t exactly heralded as a classic, the climax is one of the best Hong Kong shootouts I’ve seen outside of a John Woo movie.
By its release in 1988, “Dragon Family” was probably the 100th retelling of Coppola’s “The Godfather” in a Triad setting but, you know what, it works. The script takes its time setting up the story which means the film moves at a slower pace, but it also means we get to know the characters well enough that we actually care about them when the shit does hit the fan. Ko Chun Hsiung plays the head of the Dragon Family, a true Don Corleone figure if there ever was one. Hsiung is a the most kind and fair Triad leader you could possibly imagine – he even forgives his accountant for losing track of $4 million HK dollars. He’s also a loving father, despite being immersed in the underworld.
Hsiung has only one rule: if you’re part of his Triad family, you can’t deal in drugs. Anyone caught dealing in drugs will be executed, no questions asked. Early in the film we see Alan Tam, one of Hsiung’s surrogate sons and and enforcers, march into a crowded office complex and murder a man in cold blood with the emotional detachment of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first “Terminator.” Turns out the portly fellow, now deceased, had been dealing drugs. Shortly after the killing, Alan Tam is shuttled off to Taiwan to lay low; he’ll be absent for most of the film but come back in a big way during the ending.
Unfortunately, Hsiung’s harsh stance against drugs will be his downfall. The execution of ‘Golden Teeth Shing’ upsets one of the other four leading Brothers in the Dragon Family, played by Ku Feng. Ku Feng teams up with the Family’s accountant (William Ho), a spineless worm of a man, to plot Hsiung’s demise. Once their associate played by Norman Chu returns from the Phillipines, having spent two years there negotiating heroin traffic into Hong Kong, the three men set in motion a dark plan that will lead to the downfall of Hsiung and his sons. Soon the stage is set for a bloody tale of revenge, including a shocking moment at a funeral that has to be seen to be believed.
If there’s a downside to “Dragon Family” besides its slow pace, it’s the fact that the Region 1 DVD’s subtitles are horrendous. I can deal with a faded, scratchy image as long as the aspect ratio is correct; however, half the subtitles don’t make any sense and read like they were translated backwards. You really have to pay attention to be able to follow the story at all. I believe the disc was put out by Tai Seng in 2004; this has to be one of their worst efforts. Hardcore fans might be better off springing for the Hong Kong all-region DVD, just to see if the subtitles on that version are remotely readable.
Performance-wise, “Dragon Family” is excellent. Ko Chun Hsiung is a natural as the honorable patriarch of the Family. Alan Tam may be more popular as a singer than a movie star but he was one of the most charismatic Hong Kong actors of his era. His unconventional good looks are at home in front of the camera and he clearly took to Lau Kar-leung’s action choreography as well, from the scenes of him rolling backwards off crates and diving onto the floor, pistols blazing. Andy Lau was still early in his career here but he manages to give a more subdued and natural performance unlike in “The Last Blood.” During the final battle there’s a shot of him leaning back on the floor, firing away with a pistol in his bandaged hand, that has to be the most bad-ass Andy has ever looked.
At first glance, there’s not much to differentiate “Dragon Family” from the dozens of other Triad flicks from the 80′s. But much like “Tiger on Beat,” also choreographed by Lau Kar-leung, it has a showstopper of an ending that’s worth waiting for. There might not be an ideal way to view “Dragon Family” for English speakers, but for my money it’s worth putting up with gibberish subtitles just to get to the finale. It’s cliche but true: ‘They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.’ If you have any passion for heroic bloodshed or ‘bullet ballet’ films, then “Dragon Family” is a must see.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7.5/10