Dreadnaught – Comic Action, Deadly Comedy

Genre: Comedy/ Martial Arts
Director: Yuen Wo-Ping
Year: 1981

Rating: ★★★☆☆


The early Golden Harvest martial arts comedies of director Yuen Wo-Ping could not be more different from what was coming out of the Shaw Brothers studios at the time.

Gone are the elaborate sets and high production values. The humor and the characterizations in the Golden Harvest films make the Shaw Brothers offerings seem like the height of kitchen sink realism in comparison. In other words, the character writing, direction and acting is so broad as to be mind numbing. To me, it’s about as amusing as a bout of intestinal flu.

And yet, to compensate, there is the martial arts magic of a small army of choreographers (Yuen Wo-Ping, Chiu Chung-Hing, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Brandy Yuen Jan-Yeung, Yuen Yat-Choh, and Yuen Shun-Yi), executed with flair by Yuen Biao, Leung Kar-Yan, Kwan Tak-Hing, Phillip Ko Fei, Yuen Shun-Yi, and many others. As much as the comedic elements fail in the story, Yuen Wo-Ping was a genius at weaving comedy into the martial arts sequences. It’s Buster Keaton/ Three Stooges gags fused with martial arts.

These sequences are frequent and inventive enough to warrant a recommendation in and of themselves.

Too bad that’s practically the only thing good about Dreadnaught.

What’s the plot? I was afraid you were going to ask.

Fugitive and murderer White Tiger (Yuen Shun-Yi) is on the loose. Thanks to a trauma which will remain unnamed, he goes crazy at the sound of bells. An elderly Wong Fei Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing) is in a rivalry with the leader of another school, Tam King (Phillip Ko Fei). Mousy (Yuen Biao) is constantly bullied by his customers when he attempts to collect money they owe for he and his sisters’ laundry business.

How do these elements fit together?

Tam King arranges for White Tiger to hide out in a Peking Opera troop in his town. Mousy, in order to deal with his customers, becomes a student of Wong Fei Hung. And finally, Mousy wears a good luck charm with bells on it. My guess is that you can more or less figure out the rest.

Writing this previous paragraph, I realize it isn’t so much the plotting of Dreadnaught which makes it so painful to watch, but rather the nonstop mugging of many of the actors. The only actor to escape this fate is Kwan Tak-Hing, who plays Wong Fei Hung. The man is a comic genius. His reaction shots are priceless and he’s even funnier in his martial arts scenes.

So, unless you’re a fan of super broad Cantonese comedy, you’re likely to find much of Dreadnaught painful, but if you’re a fan of comic martial arts choreography, Dreadnaught is full of terrific sequences. How to rate Dreadnaught? I’ll give it a bare recommendation of three stars and hold my nose.

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