Distanced, forlorn glances, heaps of garishly-red blood, and a hot-tempered story -- Hong Kong Godfather certainly carries all the attributes of a Shaw Brothers film, but it's a little different than the others you might've seen. Set modern during the roaring '80s, we've got the tremendously loud patterned shirts, massive sunglasses, and neon colors around every corner. The image isn't encapsulated in the traditional ShawScope format, instead sitting taller and more open-aired than most Shaw Brothers films. And, aside from a violent burst with the film's hectic conclusion and a few stray sequences beforehand, there's not a whole lot of martial arts commotion within this Wang Lung Wei, aka Johnny Wang, directed picture until its grand finale. So, one might ask, what exactly is there to absorb with this rarity of HK cinema until then? Well, there's lot of hokey dialogue, cockamamie machine gun fire, and a dramatic edge that rides the line between frustration and that lenient so-bad-it's-good feeling.
One thing Hong Kong Godfather doesn't have is much of a plot, and that's part of the problem. Essentially, we're working with the generic old gang, new gang storyline where an elder leader, Szetsu Han (Shih Chien, instantly recognizable as Han from Enter the Dragon), has his power threatened by a commanding upstart gang with a ruthless, trained beast of a leader. Han's three key henchmen are called to deal with the situation, one being cop Sergeant Wen and another jerry-curled ladies' man Playboy Lung. The third, "Mad Wei", becomes the thumping emotional heart in the film as a single father who's scaled back from his place in the gang, told to us by his daughter that his wife died from cancer because she worried too much. Our trio's buddy-buddy antics become the focus at the start, with a churning build-up of the antagonist gang's rise occurring on the side, until godfather Szetsu Han falls at the hands of his rivals -- swallowed by utter chaos from both factions hacking up the streets.
As mentioned earlier, there's a rain of gunfire and a quick hand-to-hand bout at the beginning of Hong Kong Godfather, but other than that -- and an inspired, bloody powder-coated throwdown roughly 45 minutes in -- we've got to patiently glue our eyes to an endless stream of stilted gang banter, a few pithy loyalty blurbs and a mix of jovial yucking and hokey emotionality from "Mad Wei". Stiff-lipped talk about gold gifts to Szetsu Han that must be returned, an entire allegorical speech comparing power to waves, and other exchanges should be compelling enough to hold our focus, yet they're handled in a similar fashion to more martial arts-centric pieces where the actors merely muscle through dialogue to get to the action -- only there's no fight sequences to bookshelf the weak dramatics, hardly anything to justify the rickety acting. A few moments do arise that give us rays of dialed-in concentration on little emotional facets of the story, such as Godfather Han teaching his grandson fighting techniques and the sweaty decisions that wormy underworld pawn "Rotten Chi" makes, but they're mostly cast within wraps and wraps of overblown talk.
But all that mounts to the last thirty or so minutes in Hong Kong Godfather, which are ten pinkish-red shades of frenzied excitement -- and almost justify the sludge through brash dialogue needed to get to that point. Most of the blatant '80s jauntiness and attempts at further plot development disappear, making way for a slew of other indulgent staples -- "Mad Wei" angrily sharpening his blade in preparation for retaliatory action, Playboy Lung welling up at seeing the rival boss' rise to fame in the newspapers after his 'godfather' died, and the entirety of the storm on the HK headquarters. For roughly ten minutes through there, some tightly-executed choreography and liberal use of over-the-top bloodshed makes for a whirlwind of blades and roundhouse kicks that's pure Shaw adrenaline. Though it ends on a unsatisfying note, the blitzkrieg of lunacy leading to Wang Lung Wei's close offers at least an exhilarating cap to the rambling nature of the first two-thirds -- ending in a bloody tornado that suits the picture's braying nature just fine.
FUNimation has stalwartly picked up where BCI / Eclipse left off with their Shaw Brothers' classic releases, offering Hong Kong Godfather in a standard clear-case packaging with flashy artwork that fits the film's temper fine enough. Though I'm unversed in the nature of the film's cut/uncut status, I can confirm that the overall running time for this feature sits just under 96 minutes (1:35:38) and sports one or two skull-splits, blood-caked violent square-offs where applicable, and topless shots of girls at several points that would suggest that it's an uncut version.
Video and Audio:
Considering that this Shaw Brothers title is "one of the hardest to obtain", which usually translates to availability only through muddy, poorly-transferred visualizations, this 1.78:1 offering from FUNimation is actually quite good. Flesh tones are highly accurate, the brash '80s colors remain tight and vibrant, while darker scenes firmly grasp on a natural contrast balance. And, for the most part, the print's extremely clean and crisp, considering the period from which it's taken. Blood leans bright and visceral, just the way it should, while the sheen on metal and against the plasticity on coats retains a surprisingly textile look.
Audio arrives in a Cantonese 2.0 track that swells at the corners just enough to make it into a two-channel setup. Sound effects remain pitched and low-distortion, though always high-leaning. Verbal clarity sounds dated, but never sporting too much strain, while the sound effects of swiping blades and the crashing of thunder / lightning zaps into the speakers with decently stable clarity. Naturally, the Cantonese over-dubbing has some sync issues likely inherent with the source, but the vocals line up throughout and never pinch either high or low levels too much. The subtitle translation, only available in optional English, is excellently handled, grammatically correct and sporting a very fluid conversational text.
Aside from a slate of eight (8) Trailers in the Coming Soon section of the disc, no special features have been included.
When it comes to Shaw Brothers flicks, I prefer their period-piece pictures, like Come Drink With Me and, naturally, 36th Chamber of Shaolin. That doesn't exactly bolster forward my impressions on the '80s-dated modern-set Hong Kong Godfather, which goes reserved on action and heavy on stilted, overblown gangster theatrics for the first hour of the production. However, once it approaches the tense twenty-minute (20) sprint that builds up to roughly ten (10) minutes of non-stop blade-swiping and ass-kicking gratuity, it'll grab you by the bootstraps and almost make you appreciate the lead-in. Give it a Rental, at least for its bold-faced conclusion.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site