Judge Joel Pearce can pretend to be a martial arts expert, too, but it's never gotten him any chicks.
The story of a Kung Fu con man.
As a big fan of Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle, I was excited by the opportunity to review a pair of actor/director Stephen Chow's earlier offerings. With a similar plot description and the promise of giggles and thrills galore, I kicked back on my couch for four hours of crushing disappointment. These films show little of the genius that has arrived in Chow's recent efforts. Because they were shot back-to-back, I am going to review them as a single entity here.
Facts of the Case
In The Royal Tramp, Chow plays Wei Siu Bo, a lower class con man who has an uncanny knack for getting himself out of trouble. When he gets embroiled in a scheme to overthrow the Emperor, he gets a job in the Royal Palace, but finds himself even deeper in trouble. He soon meets the Emperor, who hires him, thinking he is a eunuch and a martial arts expert. Soon, Wei Siu Bo is both working for everyone, and on the run from everyone. It will take all of his wits to get out of the situation alive.
Royal Tramp II picks up as assassin Lone-Er (Brigitte Lin, Ashes of Time) wants to kill the Emperor and get revenge on Wei Siu Bo. Now, Bo must save the Emperor, while still hiding the fact that he wants to save the Emperor—or something like that. This time around, he ends up married to several women and he needs to find a way to keep them all happy. Fortunately, he manages to take 80% of Lone-Er's power. If only he can find a way to control it…
Before I dive into my criticisms about the Royal Tramp series, I have a few major concessions to make. This series has some truly awesome kung fu sequences. Even on a shoestring budget, Chow knows how to make over-the-top fights look really cool. As soon as these films burst into action, they become quite a bit of fun. While Chow doesn't have much action himself here, he surrounds himself with a cast of exceptional martial artists. Serious martial arts comedy fans will want to make sure they check out the series for the action, and will probably be less disappointed than I've been.
My real problem with these films is the lengthy gaps between the action. The first film opens with a massive, violent, gory martial arts segment that got me pretty hyped. Then, it grinds down into the plot, which is as convoluted as it is silly. Wei Siu Bo gets hired as a spy for one side, then ends up working for the other side, then makes new connections to the rebels, then starts working for the Emperor himself, and so on and so forth. While this switching sides is entertaining at first, it leaves us with no real sense of good and bad. By the time of the final showdown, it doesn't even matter who wins. We know that the exploding bodies guy is evil, but it would take a degree in Chinese history to fully keep track of the political connections.
In fact, it feels like the plot was sloppily tossed together around a handful of jokes and a few really good action sequences. Of course, none of Chow's films are narrative masterpieces, but the relentless silliness here simply goes nowhere. Royal Tramp II was filmed directly on the heels of the original, and therefore has the identical cast, identical situations, and an identical level of silliness. Once again, the action sequences are spectacular, the humor is juvenile, and the plot is incomprehensible. Consider the continuing problem that many martial artist women dress like men. Nobody can tell that they are women, even though they look like women and have breasts. Is this simply a running gag, an attempt to parody the martial arts genre, or a statement on gender issues? It probably doesn't matter much by the end. After ten instances of this confusion, it isn't funny or meaningful anymore.
In terms of the DVD mastering, this is not Genius Product's best effort. While the film stock must have been in rough shape, the video transfer is quite fuzzy. There's a general graininess, even though there aren't many other instances of dirt or damage. Both the original Cantonese and an English dub are available. The English dub is timed well, but it's an extremely loose translation of the original dialogue. It's hardly Shakespeare either way, though, and no matter which you choose, there's no mistaking the upmix from a mono source. The only real extra is a pair of commentary tracks with Bey Logan. He does just a bit too much explaining here, covering the dozens of reference that North American audiences don't understand. This may actually explain my disappointment with the films, since there are so many in-jokes that I don't get (and you probably won't get either). There is also an interview with writer/co-director Wong Jing.
If you like silly martial arts action and more penis jokes than you can shake a daikon radish at, The Royal Tramp series will probably tickle your fancy. For me, though, both films were a major disappointment. You may need to try it out for yourself, though I don't think it's worth the time it takes to do the research to get all the jokes. We have our own trash comedies here.
The Royal Tramp hasn't fooled me, and is hereby sentenced to something especially painful.
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