Is it even really worth the time to review the story fueling Outlaw Brothers? That's the question that went through my mind while watching its blitzed finale, full of gunshots, flying chicken feathers, and vigorous hand-to-hand brawls in a maze of cigarette shipping boxes. A handful of these scenes are studded across director/actor Frankie Chan's cult action film, about a pair of good-guy car thieves who get in over their heads with underworld activity and police-force evasion, and they're clearly the reason that the production came to exist. And there's nothing wrong with that, really, when bursts of choreography and quick editing are this good, easily on-par with other celebrated late-'80s, early-'90s Hong Kong action films. This isn't something to watch for the story though, an overlong and superficial mess that's only stable enough to underscore the action and the cunning of a femme fatale hot on the thieves' tracks.
In the space of the first eleven minutes or so, the brothers -- named, wait for it, James (Frankie Chan) and Bond (Max Mok) -- manage to steal two Porsches at different places across the city and fend off a horde of police officers with a broom. That sets the tone perfectly for the rest of Outlaw Brothers: they steal exotic cars for their uncle, a retired car thief himself, and rake in the profits so they can drink and romance women at the local club, setting the stage for brisk and often outlandish action set-pieces. Their scheme gets complicated, though, when a beautiful and physically-adept undercover cop, Tequila (Yukari Oshima), presents herself as a potential buyer to one of their vehicles, partially as a way to get under the skin of the underworld on a scale broader than stolen cars. James, one who's been burned by love, isn't sure what to make of Tequila; he's eager enough, however, to see where it takes him.
Everything about Outlaw Brothers exists on a superficial, move-the-plot-along level, an area where John Woo's oeuvre and Jackie Chan's action flicks typically create a slightly more dynamic experience. The thieving brothers are charismatic and fun to absorb, but are about as predictably surface-level as they come; James, the elder, imposes his jaded 'I've been jilted" outlook on the younger, in-love Bond, trading pessimism and doe-eyed romanticism amid cheeky back-slapping, thumbs-up exchanges. Characters, including villains, enter and exit unceremoniously as the plot beckons, and the common sense within certain plot thrusts -- the interaction between cops and self-admitted car thieves being the more noticeable -- isn't convincing. Even considering an intentionally absurdist angle from Frankie Chan, which generates chuckly-worthy physical comedy, the logic and dialogue simply aren't there.
But you really don't mind when the action sequences arrive and depart in Outlaw Brothers, a tightly-edited, tightly-paced batch of car chases and, more prominently, vigorous fight sequences across Hong Kong. Frankie Chan exhibits a concise eye for outlandish action -- flying splits that transform into kicks, chaotic usage of mundane objects as melee weapons, bodies ricocheting off speeding vehicles -- and his aptitude in those arenas makes one wish he would've chopped about twenty minutes of story out and replaced 'em with an extra brawl or two. Those sexy, nostalgia-driven '80s sports cars bolster that spirit, too, especially when seeing classic Ferraris and Porsches in their heyday zip around as the valuable commodities that the brothers pilfer. All of them boil to a head at very clear points in the film, first featuring the brothers and Tequila separately and then, later on, throwing them together in a hectic climax.
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing part of Outlaw Bandits is Yukari Oshima, who excites as Tequila with her physical capacity and her meager attempts to bring complexity to one of the characters. Once the story arrives at her undercover situation, establishes her relationship with James, and finally lands on a concrete villain -- a drug-smuggling nemesis of Tequila's -- Frankie Chan allows the film to accelerate towards its bombastic conclusion with her conflicted motives behind the wheel. And what a climax it turns into: an ending full of zip cords, dead chickens, hissing snakes, swirling blades, and lots of gunfire from men and women alike brings the skeleton of a plot to a rousing visceral apex, one that understands that the only thing it needs to take seriously is the rapidity and hard-hitting force of the action. It's not enough to shape it into a decent movie, but it's enough to grant it recognition as a bracing, fun guilty pleasure.
Video and Audio:
The Dragon Dynasty line has seen its share of ups and downs over the past five or six years, ranging from crisp, vastly-improved treatments of classic and contemporary hard-to-find Asian releases to those that are merely serviceable. Outlaw Brothers fits into the latter category: the 1.78:1-framed anamorphic transfer takes a few steps above, say, VHS-caliber quality in contrast, light reflection, and skin tones, but it also sports heavy damage and quite a few digital weaknesses. Details occasionally get muddy and blurred in pretty observable ways, making it look somewhat processed, while some unfortunate macroblocking, jittery frames and hefty print imperfections -- including some rough grain representation -- take it quite a few steps back. The transfer still drags the film across the finish line in a vibrant, partly-satisfying way, but it could've been handled with more care.
The audio, a 2-channel Cantonese mono track, doesn't fare much better, unfortunately. It's a murky, rough, pretty indistinct aural experience with unpredictable bass and treble levels, which gives the dubbed recorded dialogue a lot of gristle. Nearly everything falls into the inherently-flawed category, from the music to gunshots and higher-pitched sound effects, where clarity really isn't its strong suit. With that said: there aren't any damning imperfections in the actual track itself and the punches-'n-kicks possess that earthy, nostalgic twang to them, so it's not outside the realm of being enjoyable when diving into this rarely-seen martial-arts flick. An English dub is also available.
Note: Apparently, Outlaw Brothers was cut by about ten seconds in the UK due to some footage of violence against chickens. While I haven't seen that cut of the film and cannot say with any certainty, I think it's safe to assume that the content here appears to be intact. For reference to those with more knowledge on the matter, the runtime clocks in at 1:41:40.
Not a darn thing, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering the fact that a Bey Logan commentary and a few interviews can be found on the Hong Kong Legends disc.
Hardcore martial arts fans will relish the opportunity to have Outlaw Brothers in their collection for some moderately impressive fight choreography, spread pretty evenly between director/actor Frankie Chan and Yukari Oshima. The script, however, isn't enough to recommend on a broader scale, where one-dimensional characters and a limp overall plot obviously exists to just get us from Action Scene A to B and to support the intrigue of its white-knuckled female actress. Certainly worthy of a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site