Anyone, even Judge Joel Pearce, could be a martial arts hero in the '70s.
"To call someone a hero means that all their personality traits and actions exhibit ones of a hero." -Jimmy Wang Yu
The above quote should give you a sense of the level of depth, attention and sophistication required to watch Knight Errant. That's not a bad thing though. Two old-school kung-fu icons, three avenging brothers, an evil grandmother, a blind sister, and a heroic taxi driver…what's not to like?
Facts of the Case
When a Japanese officer kills himself after the escape of a Chinese prisoner during the occupation, his wife spends the next twenty years training their three sons, led by the particularly nasty Tatsuro (Yasuaki Kurata, So Close). Their entire childhoods are spent training to kill the man who caused the death of their father…
Who turns out to be a pretty nice guy named Lin Ming Chung, trying to scrape the money together to get an operation for his blind daughter. Now, the only thing that stands between him and certain death is his son Huo-Shan (Jimmy Wang Yu, Master of the Flying Guillotine), a headstrong taxi driver who tends to get into fights.
Back in the '60s, anyone could be a martial arts hero. An actor didn't have to train for years in seclusion to develop his skills, and he didn't necessarily have to be a Shaolin monk. In these old kung-fu movies, everyone knew how to fight, and the hero could simply be a taxi driver. Bruce Lee's popularity changed all that, when suddenly a hero needed to battle his or her way through wave after wave of incompetent losers.
But Knight Errant returns to an older style. When Huo-Shan gets into a scuffle at a local bar over a taxi fare, everyone gets into the action, and everyone fights on equal ground—even the white guys. Although these battles lack the virtuosity and polish of later martial arts movies, there's something really cool about these rough, inventive, fast-paced fights. Thanks to a wide range of locations, these sequences never get repetitive, and they make great use of the environment. It's easy to see the influence that Jackie Chan later picked up for his own action scenes (though he did it all so much better). The best of these is at a lumber yard, where groups of fighters need to balance on the logs in a death defying game of chicken.
Although the film is full of action sequences, it never gets heavy handed. There aren't many deaths, and when characters are killed, it is done in freeze frame, to keep things from getting too grisly. It certainly avoids the graphic one-upmanship that was going on in the era's wu xia films. This lightness creates a fun tone that runs through the whole film. The levity is aided by the characters (even the death squad is fairly funny) and situations. Huo-Shan feels obligated to pay the medical bills of the people he gets into fights with, even if they were clearly in the wrong. The soundtrack helps a lot, too, blaring out more wah pedal guitar and cheesy horn riffs than Shaft. The camera angles and sound effects are highly exaggerated, too, and it's an easy movie to get lost in if you let it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For every great action scene and camera angle, there is another scene that just doesn't work. The subplot involving Huo-Shan's girlfriend being seduced at the grocery store doesn't work, and it eats up major screen time. When the death squad arrives after twenty years of hard training to kill Huo-Shan's father, they decide it would be best to make the deaths look like an accident. What? That's not what I stuck Knight Errant on to see. The subsequent scenes are mildly funny, but it creates a long gap in the action.
Some of the shots are just as annoying. While the action sequences feature great cinematography, the constant zooming through the rest of the film had me reaching for the Gravol.
The transfer is an acceptable attempt by Pathfinder. The print is very old, and most scenes are covered in dirt and scratches. The color is strong, though, with good saturation and decent black levels. I suspect this is the clearest Knight Errant has looked since its theatrical showing, and I'm not sure it deserves a Criterion-level cleanup.
The sound doesn't fare as well as the picture. Both the original Chinese track and the English dub are in mono, and they don't sound great. There's an audible hiss through the whole film, the dialogue is hazy, and the music lacks the bass response it deserves, especially the original track.
The disc has a few extras. An interview with Jimmy Wang Yu, now much older, is worth watching. He doesn't answer any of the questions he is asked, but he does talk about interesting things involving the film industry of the time. There is also a commentary track by two critics for Box Office magazine, who point out obvious things but also discuss details about the martial arts film industry which many viewers won't be familiar with.
A product from a simpler time, Knight Errant is sure to please fans of old school kung-fu action. Bolstered by a cheesy '70s soundtrack and plenty of inventive fight scenes, it's easy to turn a blind eye to the lousy script and scenes that just don't work. This DVD is a fine way to experience this film, and even throws some special features in to boot. Check it out.
Knight Errant isn't a great film, and it's not even a classic martial arts picture. It's tons of fun, though, and has been treated well by Pathfinder. Not guilty.
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