The great Chinese opera star, Kwan Tak-Hing, immortalised the revered Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-Hung, in over one hundred films during the course of his career. Although rarely presented in a historically accurate fashion, Wong Fei-Hung continued to appear in many Martial Arts movies, with the likes of Jackie Chan (in the self directed "Drunken Master") and Jet Li (In Tsui Harks's "Once Upon A Time In China") portraying the hero in various stages of his life. Director and fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping, has long been connected with Fei-Hung's movie life: he directed Chan in "Iron Monkey" and choreographed the fight sequences in "Once Upon A Time ..."; but "Dreadnaught" sees Woo-Ping overseeing (as both director and fight co-ordinator) the return of the stately Kwan Tak-Hing to the role of Wong Fei-Hung in an entertaining and original return to old-school kung fu action (as opposed to the wire assisted fantasy sequences he choreographed for Jet Li's series of films). In the late seventies, when kung fu and Bruce Lee were all the rage, Hammer brought their usual formula, consisting of Dracula, vampires and Peter Cushing, together with asian martial arts action, in the somewhat unlikely (but strangely entertaining) horror/action 'epic', "Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires". By the early eighties, the horror genre seems to have been having an even stranger reciprocal impact on Hong Kong cinema: the slasher boom was beginning to take off -- and this Golden Harvest production reflects that influence with its rather incongruous inclusion of a host of slasher conventions, uneasily shoehorned in alongside the familiar slapstick comedy skits and the clever demonstrations of martial arts prowess that usually make up the content of these flicks. Ironically, the aged Kwan Tak-Hung's dignified presence does rather remind one of the late Peter Cushing; he has a similar calm, commanding charisma that lights up the screen and makes all the madness that surrounds him during the movie watchable, no matter how objectively ridiculous it may appear. The only real drawback with his appearance, here, is that his character is not made nearly enough use of, and appears in only a few set-pieces dotted punctually throughout the movie, while the great majority of screen time goes to the comic antics of Yuen Biao. Nevertheless, these few sequences are enough to give "Dreadnaught" that extra kick of gravitas; and Yuen Woo-Ping's pre-Hollywood (he went on to choreograph "Kill Bill" and "The Matrix") horror/action fest is one of the more excitable and deranged of old-school kung fu classics.
The opening scene (over-which the title credits also appear) takes the form of a sort of Spaghetti Western pastiche in which a husband & wife criminal duo encounter a team of bounty hunters running a fake noodle restaurant that has been set up in a desolate region in order to trap them both. The gory fight to the death that follows results in the death of the criminal, White Tiger's (Yuen Shun-Yee) partner and beloved wife (Kam Kar-Fung): an event that sends him over the edge into murderous, psychotic madness! Now a dribbling, angry wreck of a man, White Tiger seeks out his ex-partner, the shady Master Tam (Phillip Koo) who has become involved in a petty feud with revered healer and martial arts master, Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Fei-Hung) over who will get to perform the celebrated "lion dance" at this year's state opening ceremony. Meanwhile, timid young Mousy (Yuen Biao) gets into bother when trying to collect laundry money from his sister's clients: his inveterate shyness and pusillanimity leave him unable to assert himself, and he ends up coming home empty-handed after being bullied by all and sundry on his rounds. (He is even too scared to enter one premises because of a comically small dog that has been left standing guard outside!) Yuen Biao, of course, was a huge Martial Arts superstar by the time this movie was released; it may be slightly disappointing to many fans though, to see that, although commanding most of the screen time throughout, his role here is almost exclusively a comic one: he is the butt of most of the film's jokes and sight gags, and his skills are mostly employed to comic effect -- for instance when his angry sister (played by Shaw Brothers' graduate, Lilly Li) chases him with a bamboo stick after he fails to collect the laundry money; or numerous scenes involving Mousy's best friend trying to help him look heroic in order to woo pretty Tang Ching, who has mistaken him for Master Wong Fei-Hung! In fact, the viewer has to wait right until the very end of the film to see Biao in a proper fight scene (although, when it finally comes, it is a spectacular one!)
Mousy's best friend is Master Wong Fei-Hung's trusted assistant and student, Leung Foon (played by Leung Ka-Yan), and, in the course of demonstrating to his timid pal, how he should go about asserting himself while collecting his rents, they visit the Opera House where they inadvertently (and unknowingly) stumble across White Tiger, who has been hiding out backstage at the House while the authorities continue to hunt for him. By chance, Mousy has some beads which he tends to nervously jangle whenever stressed; and, unfortunately for him, these remind White Tiger of his wife's death (for she also had a similar trinket) and set him off on a murderous, Jason Vohrees-style, killing spree! Mousy is the main target of this deranged aggression, but it is the Opera House's leading man, Kwun (Chow Yuen-Kin), who gets in the way first, and is viciously slashed to ribbons with the jagged edge of a broken piece of mirror! White Tiger even dons a "slasher killer" disguise by utilising theatrical face paints: a look which brings a very traditional element to the other U.S. slasher movie imports. All the familiar slasher clichés are employed very effectively by director, Yuen Woo-Ping: POV shots, false scares and surprising levels of blood appear alongside the familiar Hong Kong comedy routines. In fact, the scenes where the killer stalks and attempts to kill Yuen Biao play surprisingly like "Scary Movie" type slapstick satire on typical slasher movie conventions.
Eventually, Mousy realises his only hope of survival rests on his becoming a student of Foon's master, Wong Fei-Hung (who has continued to easily fend off Master Tan's futile assassination attempts throughout the film), and, although initially rejected because of his obvious bumbling incompetence, Mousy is eventually accepted as a student by the ageing master after he witnesses Mousy saving a small child from being scolded by a falling kettle in a restaurant. This act of involuntary courage reveals Mousy's true nature, existing beneath his cowardly exterior, to the wily kung fu expert. More comedy sequences dominate most of the rest of the film (a lot of them involving the pompous and incompetent Marshall Pao [Fan Mui Sang] and his hopeless attempts to investigate the "painted killer" case) but eventually, the two plot strands involving Master Tan's attempts to kill Fei-Hung, and the painted killer's vendetta against Mousy, come together in a climactic night-time sequence at the Opera House where the stylised theatrical conventions of the Peking Opera and the scare tactics of '80s U.S. slasher flicks combine to great and original effect. An unexpectedly emotional moment occurs when Mousy and, the usually inscrutable, Wong Fei-Hung are faced with the death of a much-loved colleague; and the final two fight sequences (where they both confront their respective nemesis') are lightning-fast displays of amazing Martial Arts prowess. The ending is completely bewildering though, for the film seems to end in the middle of a scene, leaving the viewer unsure what, exactly, is going on. This does appear to be the proper ending though!
Hong Kong Legends present "Dreadnaught" in the manner to which we have become accustomed from their previous treatment of classic Golden Harvest flicks. A beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, restores this flick to its vibrant, detailed best; audio options give you the choice of either the original Cantonese mono track or a 5.1 surround sound remix (with English and Dutch subtitles). An English 5.1 dub track is also available. The extras include an animated text piece, "Who is Wong-Fei-Hung", which details the history of the folk heroe's appearances on film, and a twenty minute video interview with female actor Lilly Li (who only has a small role as Yuen Biao's sister in "Dreadnaught") who talks about her career, from her initiation into the Shaw Brothers' experimental opera troupe, to her work in Golden Harvest pictures. She also talks about her co-stars over the years, from Jackie Chan to Yuen Biao, and her memories of working with director Yuen Woo-Ping on the film in question. Trailers for this and other Hong Kong Legends titles rounds off the haul of goodies on what is a very acceptable presentation of a great piece of Hong Kong cinematic history.