Thursday, April 6, 2023

Blu-ray Review: HEART OF DRAGON

 by Anthony King

Jackie and Sammo team up for more heart than dragon.

When you push play on a Jackie Chan-Sammo Hung joint you usually know what you're in for. A goofy story, laugh out loud comedy bits, some of the best action sequences you've ever seen, and, especially in Jackie-directed movies, a blooper reel during the end credits. Heart of Dragon (1985) gives you a heartfelt story, a couple comedic moments, a few great action sequences, and no ending outtakes. For some this may dissuade them from sitting down with the film. For all it would at least warrant a raised eyebrow. I implore you to watch Heart of Dragon.
From Sammo's production company Bo Ho, a subsidiary of Golden Harvest, Heart of Dragon calls upon its director/actor to show the world he's more than a director of amazing kung-fu action films. The story follows Tat (Jackie) as a Hong Kong tactical force officer who has just been promoted to the CID unit. What Tat longs for, though, is to work on a ship and sail the world over. The one thing keeping him from chasing his dream is his brother, Dodo (Sammo), an intellectually disabled “man-child.” Dodo lives with Tat, who provides him with food, shelter, and tutoring, and while Dodo doesn't need constant supervision (he spends a lot of time with his group of friends who are all children), there is no other family in his life besides an aunt who can care for him full-time. On top of a recent promotion, a dream job he can't have, and a brother who needs looking after, Tat is also courting Jenny (Emily Chu), who knows getting into a relationship with a man like Tat would require major sacrifices. The first two acts of the film are spent getting to know Tat and Dodo, seeing how much they love each other, and watching Tat as he struggles to keep everything in his life together.

Meanwhile, Tat's new boss Inspector Wong (Melvin Wong), assigns him to a case following a local crime syndicate led by Mr. Kim (James Tien) and his two aides-de-camp played by Dick Wei and Phillip Ko. Dodo accidentally gets his hands on a satchel of diamonds belonging to the baddies, and after a series of unfortunate circumstances, is kidnapped by the gangsters. Going against orders Tat and his crew go after the syndicate, and in true Sammo-Jackie style, the film climaxes with a brawl in a high rise construction site. While typically a film of this nature from these two stars of the Hong Kong film industry would end in an all-smiles freeze frame, the film has a sort-of coda where Tat actually has to face the consequences for his actions. The film ends in a prison scene montage of Tat suffering a broken heart, and Dodo living his life on the outside. Worry not, viewer, because the brothers are once again reunited at the very end.
Known in some territories as “The First Mission,” Heart of Dragon was such a pleasant surprise the first time I saw it a few years prior to this writing. This was a chance for both Jackie and Sammo to flex their acting chops a little and prove to the world they weren't just action stars but also actors. More than once Jackie has to cry on camera, something he'd never had to do before this film, and in interviews he talks about how hard that was for him. But those few times in Heart of Dragon are powerful reminders that this man is not only one of the world's greatest action stars and stunt men, he's also one of the greatest actors to come out of Hong Kong. Tat's frustration explodes forth and he begins slapping his brother; he shouts, ““Can’t you help me? Can’t you be a man?” It's at that moment we see just what this man has been feeling for so many years. Sammo as Dodo is also a feat of acting. Sammo plays Dodo with as much respect as someone could give a character like this. While intellectually disabled, Sammo only plays Dodo like a boy of eight; a giant child that fits in with the rest of the kids in the movie. He is so good with these kids I can only imagine how special it must have been for these other child actors to play these roles. And because Sammo and Jackie grew up together, their relationship is authentic and believable. The love between the two is palpable, and comes through like a dagger hitting you right in the feels.

This isn't to say the movie is void of incredible action sequences and stunts. When Dodo shows where he's hidden the diamonds, he's kicked over the edge of a small cliff. Sammo, doing his own stunts of course, does a backflip over the railing, landing on his back, and rolls down a steep incline through heavy brush. There's a long car/dirt bike chase that seems a bit out of place and a little long but is nevertheless amazing and fun as hell to watch. At the beginning, we see Jackie wielding a machine gun, something we've rarely, if ever, seen. The final battle scene between the cops and gang is full of incredible fight choreography, eye-popping stunts, and breathtaking cinematography and editing. The camera always seems to be moving, which was Sammo's intent since he primarily used a dolly for the entire end fight scenes. And we see Jackie straight up murder a guy with a pick axe. The drama may be heavy and plentiful, but the action doesn't so much take a backseat as it's just riding shotgun for this film.
Arrow's incredible Blu-ray brings Heart of Dragon to the U.S. for the very first time in a package that includes two versions of the film, a fascinating commentary, and archival making-of footage and interviews galore. Delivered in HD 1080p from a 2K restoration by Fortune Star with original lossless Cantonese and English mono audio and optional English subtitles, this is leaps and bounds better looking and sounding than the terrible rip I'd seen all those years ago. The archival supplements include interviews with Jackie (9:27), actor Rocky Lai (10:05), cinematographer Arthur Wong (15:12), and two with Sammo (7:29 and 11:24); plus two behind the scenes featurettes: “The Making of the First Mission” (48:43), and “The First Mission: Pre-Release Event” (15:23). You also get a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Sam Gilbey, a music video trailer gallery by Su Rui, an image gallery, and for the first pressing only, an illustrated collectors' booklet featuring new writing by Dylan Cheung and David West.

While all that is well and good, the real reason to buy this edition is for the two different cuts of Heart of Dragon. The first is the original Hong Kong theatrical cut (91 min.) that is most known the world over. The second is the Japanese extended cut (98 min.) that includes a commentary by producer, consulting translator, and historian Frank Djeng and producer, writer, and Jackie Chan superfan FJ DeSanto. The Japanese cut of Heart of Dragon includes music sung by Jackie Chan, two big fight scenes completely cut from the Hong Kong version, and an end credits blooper reel (the only Sammo-directed/Jackie-starring movie that has it). The first of the two fight sequences takes place towards the beginning when Tat is assigned to take a strung out junkie to a methadone clinic. Two of Mr. Kim's thugs are inside, prepared to kill the junkie, and Tat must fight them off in typical Jackie fashion. The second fight scene occurs after Tat meets Jenny at her restaurant. Tat and his comrades fight a gang in the restaurant's parking lot in a scene that gives equal camera and stunt time to all participants. Mr. Djeng's and Mr. DeSanto's commentary is jam-packed with information on shooting locations, actors' filmographies, and, while there are times when the gushing becomes repetitive, it's incredibly thoughtful and helpful in pointing out what scenes are missing from the Hong Kong Version.
Heart of Dragon isn't just a disc to slip into the collections of Sammo and/or Jackie completists. This is a film for anyone with a heart (no pun intended), interested in powerful stories delivered by grade-A actors with the occasional mind-blowing fight sequence thrown in for good measure.

Blu-ray release date: April 11, 2023
91 minutes/98 minutes/1985
2.35:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (Cantonese, English, Mandarin)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Anthony!!! Im a huge Jackie Chan fan, particularly of his output from the 80s to mid 90s. I know we're getting several blu ray releases of movies from this era soon and really appreciate your review of Heart of Dragon!! I havent seen this one for years and its definitely worth the upgrade. Can never go wrong when Jackie appears with either or both of his "brothers" Samo and Yuen.