Robin’s Underrated Gems: Knockabout (1979)

Last week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast on martial arts movies and I remarked that I haven’t written too many “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns about films from that genre. Well, there’s a pretty simple reason for that: martial arts movies usually don’t give you a hell of a lot to talk about. Even the best examples from the genre don’t provide much in the way of plot, characterization or depth. All that really matters are the fight sequences and even if a martial arts film fails on every level, it will usually get an automatic “thumbs up” if it delivers the goods in the action department. Unfortunately, that makes it hard to write an entire column about one of these films, as what else can you really say besides “the fight scenes kick ass”? But I’m still gonna take a shot at it. Knockabout is a 1979 martial arts film which deserves more attention. It functions as a great showcase for Yuen Biao, who is probably the most underrated martial arts star of all time. Like many of its genre counterparts, Knockabout is no great shakes when it comes to plot or characterization, but more than makes up for that with some truly jaw-dropping action sequences.

Not surprisingly, the storyline for Knockabout is pretty simple. Little John (Yuen Biao) and Big John (Liang Chia-Jen) are a pair of brothers who make their living as con artists. They eventually find themselves getting a dose out of their own medicine after they are fleeced out of their money by a shady character named Silver Fox (Lau Kar Wing), who also happens to be an exceptionally skilled fighter. However, Silver Fox decides to take the two brothers under his wing and train them to be fighters, so they can act as his muscle on future con jobs. Things are going well until the brothers discover that Silver Fox is actually a wanted murderer and they want no part in helping their master kill his victims. Silver Fox winds up killing Big John in a fight, so the desperate Little John is forced to turn to Fatty the Beggar (Sammo Hung), who also happens to be pretty skilled at the whole martial arts thing. Little John asks Fatty to train him, so that he can take on Silver Fox and get revenge for his brother. As a result, we are treated to what may be the most impressive training montage in cinema history.

If you go to the 1:10 mark of the preceding clip, you will be treated to one of the most awe-inspiring physical feats ever: Yuen Biao manages to does over ten consecutive standing back flips in less than ten seconds! No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The flips are all done in one unbroken camera shot, so you know that trick editing wasn’t used, and this was long before the days of CGI and “wire fu”. Even though Knockabout’s storyline has been done zillions of times before in other martial arts movies, Yuen Biao helps make this film stand out above the pack. Yuen spent his childhood training at the Peking Opera House, which specialized in teaching martial arts and acrobatics and wound up grooming a lot of famous actors. Yuen happened to be classmates with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and the trio would start out their careers as stuntmen before becoming full-fledged martial arts stars. Even though Yuen never achieved the international fame and recognition that Chan and Hung did, he still built up a stellar career for himself and appeared in numerous movies alongside his two lifelong friends. Knockabout was Yuen’s first starring role and the film is a great vehicle for his skills, particularly during the epic climax where both he and his villainous rival manage to fight each other while jumping role at the same time.

Sammo Hung was the director of Knockabout, but even though he still puts his own skills on display, Hung is content to mostly just sit back and showcase Yuen at his acrobatic best. The director is also wise enough to keep building up the film’s momentum as it goes along. For its first half hour, Knockabout features very little action and is primarily a goofy slapstick comedy. In fact, the humour is so broad that some of the bad guys actually have hairy moles on their faces (for whatever reason, hairy moles were a fairly common trait among martial arts villains during the 1970s). Truth to be told, Knockabout seems like it’s going to be a pretty tedious experience at first, but it finally kicks into gear once the fight scenes start taking place and it only gets better as it goes along. Knockabout’s action sequences consistently keep topping themselves until the very end. By the time it reaches Yuen’s training montage and the climactic “jump rope” fight, the viewer’s jaws are on the floor. When all is said and done, there’s really nothing else to say about Knockabout except that it’s a criminally underrated entry in the martial arts genre and more than delivers the goods in the action department. As if you didn’t any more motivation to watch it, here’s a demo reel which was used to promote the film and showcases Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung at their very best.

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