Fox // 1981 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // June 23rd, 2004
"I've fought 300 times in Fatshan, and I've never been beaten" --
"That's not what I've heard. Your opponents were paid to lose, cause your father doesn't want you to get hurt" -- Lee Tai
Considered by some to be one of Sammo Hung's best films, The Prodigal Son has now been released in a bare bones but impressive package from Fox. Turns out it's a pretty entertaining film, too.
Leung Chang (Yuen Biao) knows he's the best fighter in town. He's known as the street brawler, and he effortlessly wails on local tough guys, never losing a brawl. What he doesn't understand is that his father pays people to lose to him...and pays off serious fighters to protect him.
He discovers this, to his great surprise, when he is soundly beaten by a cross dressing opera performer named Lee Tai (Lam Ching-ying). Not only is he not the strongest guy around, but he is a prodigal son, a lousy fighter that everyone laughs at behind his back. After this horrible discovery, Leung Chang joins the opera in the hopes that Lee Tai will take him on as a student. Lee Tai refuses, but everything changes when the two are drawn into a battle with another prodigal son, a powerful nobleman whose ignorance could kill both Leung Chang and Lee Tai.
I will get past the part of the review that most of you care about right away. The Prodigal Son has lots of action. This action is well choreographed, performed by excellent martial artists, and is tons of fun to watch. The fight in the fire is one of the best martial arts sequences I have seen, right up there with the end of Drunken Master II. Many of the fight scenes have some humor to lighten them up, but all of the performers know when it's time to get down to business as well.
Outside of the action scenes, the performances are solid as well. Yuen Biao's transformation from the spoiled and pathetic rich boy to a dedicated fighter is always believable, and he is a solid martial artist as well. Even better is Lam Ching-ying, who is almost believable as a woman, fully believable as a fighter, and finds a perfect balance between being highly skilled and weakened by sickness. The weakest work comes from writer/actor/director/producer/choreographer Sammo Hung, whose light slapstick humor stands apart from the rest of the film. To be fair, he has some good moments as well, but they come too late in the film.
A lot of movies from Hong Kong have that silly, childish humor that doesn't meld with the epic plots and tough fight scenes. The Prodigal Son has some of this, but less than most, and the film succeeds in delivering an epic and moving story with lots of action in less than two hours. The plot does lag during the section that focuses on Leung's time in the opera, but the end is taken up by a well designed training section, followed by a couple of very solid fight scenes.
The film does try to explore a few interesting issues. Lee Tai is a capable fighter, but is associated with femininity because of the role he performs in the opera. As well, the notion of class is brought up, as both prodigal sons are from rich families, which comes with some benefits and protections that they did not ask for. Really, though, this is a light action comedy, so none of these issues are explored too deeply.
The technical quality of the disc is so-so. It's not fair to expect reference quality from old school Hong Kong action flicks. The picture is actually decent considering the quality of the source print. The black level isn't that great, but the colors are well depicted without being too garish, and the detail is as good as can be expected. The sound is another matter. While I am not completely against remixing mono tracks into 5.1, I think it needs to be done properly. Most of the sound for The Prodigal Son comes from the center channel, except some awkwardly placed fight sounds and some ambient noise that pops out. The Dolby and DTS tracks sound almost identical, but something about both tracks sounds off. Sound problems aside, the dialogue in either language is clear. Fox decided to include both the original Cantonese track and an English dub on the disc. It's a good thing, too, as this is one of the most annoying dubs I have heard. The translation is quite bad and very different than the subtitles.
As for extras, Fox has included two theatrical trailers for The Prodigal Son, as well as the trailers for four other movies in the remastered Hong Kong collection.
Fans of the film who do not yet have it on DVD should grab this film immediately. I also recommend it for fans of classic Hong Kong action, as it's a solid edition of a great action film. It's a shame that Fox didn't can the DTS tracks in favor of some special features, but the disc is cheaply priced, so I won't kick up a huge fuss.
It's not the disc of the year, but it's a fun film with a decent transfer. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R