But John Woo did not start out as a director of such great influence that you can literally point to several of his films--most notably The Killer and Hard Boiled--and emphatically state that he helped change the way action films were made. The truth is that Woo started out as assistant director at Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers, working under the equally legendary Chang Cheh. Woo set off to make a name as a director, leaving Shaw Brothers for their competitor Golden Harvest, where he was best known for directing comedies. His transition to action came fairly early, with Last Hurrah for Chivalry being a pivotal film in what was to become a very impressive career.
With the sort of deceptively simple story that still manages to become confusing--a familiar problem with many Hong Kong films--Last Hurrah is pretty much your basic kung fu revenge tale (only with a slight twist). As the film starts, the wedding of Kau Pan (Lau Kong) is disrupted by the nemesis of his clan, the nefarious Pak Chung Tong (Lee Hoi-San) who brings with him a small army of white-clad ninjas to disrupt the merriment. When the party is over, Tong and his men have pretty much killed off everyone, leaving only Pan and few others left alive to plot the inevitable quest for vengeance. Because his fighting skills are not all they could be, Pan decides to find some hired swords to take care of business for him. It isn't that long before Chang Sen (Wei Pai) and Tsing Yi (Damian Lau) are shedding blood for Kau Pan. There are several other subplots that help to convolute the story, including an evil hired swordsman that Chang must square off against, and a certain matter of betrayal, but by and large that's the plot of Last Hurrah for Chivalry.
With only a brief glimpse of the genius that was yet to come--and even then, the glimpse is hardly genius--Last Hurrah for Chivalry never manages to really give any indication that Woo would ever amount to much more than a journeyman director. The film suffers from many major flaws, first and foremost being Woo's ill-advised attempt to capture the magic of Chang Cheh, the man responsible for classics like The One-Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms. Clearly the young director did not have the skills to pull of the same sort of direction, nor did Golden Harvest have the resources of Shaw Brothers. The end result is a film that looks more often than not like a bad imitation of a Shaw Brothers film.
The second major problem of Last Hurrah for Chivalry is what amounts to a bad script. Sure, you should only be so critical when watching kung fu movies of this nature, but at the same time you can only be so forgiving as well. The reality is that this film manages to cross over into a realm where the script just becomes unforgivably bad, dragging on with long bouts of exposition between action sequences, and punctuated with comedic moments that never seem to fit in. Of course, none of this helped by the bad acting. Again, you can only expect so much "good acting" in a film like this, but even with low expectations, much of the cast fails to deliver even the most base requirements.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry features two solid fight sequences--the first arriving nearly 45 minutes into the film--but by and large, even the action is not all that exciting. There are a few moments where the trademark slow-motion action sequences that have defined Woo's direction style can be found--a style that was influenced by Sam Peckinpah--but like everything else of merit in this film, there's no consistency. In fact, about the only thing that is consistent throughout the film is the unmistakable homoeroticism.
When all is said and done, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is the sort of film you watch more if you're a die-hard fan of John Woo, and want to see an example of his cinematic beginnings. If, however, you are a fan of kung fu flicks featuring plenty of swordplay, this is not exactly a film that is screaming to be seen.