Criterion Review: LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY
John Woo returns to the Criterion Collection with the transitional precursor to his bullet ballads
New on Criterion Blu-ray, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is a historic transitional film in Hong Kong action cinema, released at a time when wuxia films were starting to feel old fashioned.
As we’ve outlined in our Shaw Bros exploration, kung fu and wuxia cinema progressed in the 1970s in a way that paved the path for the later explosion of heroic bloodshed films, a subgenre most closely associated with director John Woo. Soulful, bloody, and possessing themes of brotherhood, honor and betrayal, these martial arts films set a template that was easily translated into modern gangster tales, and Last Hurrah for Chivalry, a whirlwind of bravado, betrayals, and revelations, is arguably the most transitional piece in this progression.
Today brotherhood in conflict still remains one of cinema’s most powerful storytelling forms, notably seen in RRR as a particularly key recent example.
By 1979, Woo had been in the industry for awhile, working for Shaw Studios as an assistant director under the legendary Chang Cheh, and then directing some of his own films for Golden Harvest. His output during this time covered different genres like comedy and romance that don’t neatly line up into his better known filmography, but there’s still a clear line that can be followed from his 1970s martial arts work to 1986's trend-setting crime tale A Better Tomorrow, the first in a chain of masterworks that followed.
Last Hurrah sets up a conflict between a couple of warring factions with a decades-old feud, which at first seems to be the primary plot. But it’s actually two other swordsmen, uninvolved in this initial conflict, who emerge as the tragic heroes of the tale, manipulated into conflict and even set against each other by powers and factors outside their control.
Their setback is that they are by honorable men in dishonorable times, and manipulated by those who take advantage of their good nature and desire to help — a common theme threading the path from kung fu cinema to Woo’s heroic bloodshed (as well as Japan’s concurrently evolving Yakuza genre).
In action terms, the film mixes up both classical and modern styles, with fantastic elements — on the one hand operatic and romanticized, but also incorporating notably bloody swordplay, some classically fantastic or even cartoonish elements like ninjas who “swim” underground through the sandy terrain to mount a sneaky ambush, or an enemy who fights in his sleep.
Another key aspect of Last Hurrah’s tonally mixed approach to genre is less obvious to English speaking viewers: the studio wanted to employ modern language and slang in its period setting, something that Woo laments on this disc’s extras. This anachronism was criticized at the time and affected the film’s tone, but arguably helped expand the genre’s vocabulary and adjust action fans’ taste to a more modern context.
Both historically significant and entertaining in its own right, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is an important transitional film in the career of one of Hong Kong’s most legendary filmmakers.
This new edition of Last Hurrah for Chivalry marks the return of John Woo to the Criterion Collection, whose films Hard Boiled and The Killer were long ago released on DVD, now long out of print and very hard to find.
This Blu-ray release exhibits a new 2K digital restoration and newly translated English subtitles, and is packed in a Criterion clear Scanovo case with some beautiful new watercolor-style artwork.
The package also features a 12-page fold-out booklet with an essay by film scholar and writer-editor Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park of the University of Hong Kong, along with the usual restoration notes and acknowledgements.
Audio options: 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio and uncompressed Mono; Cantonese language or alternate English dub
Special Features and Extras
The features set is a bit light for a Criterion edition, and notably does not carry over extras from the prior Dragon Dynasty DVD, which had a couple of interviews, a weapons featurette, and a commentary by (disgraced Weinstein associate) Bey Logan, so fans of the DVD extras may still wish to hold onto their older discs.
That said, Criterion has added a couple of new extras to help make up the shortfall, including a short conversation with the director himself.
Audio interview with Jon Woo (3:20)
A brief commentary from John Woo as interviewed by Robert K Elder. While it’s not an on-camera interview, lively editing complements everything being discussed visually through a combination of stills, film clips, and live on-screen text (not as traditional captions, but in animated fashion).
Interview with author Grady Hendrix (8:42)
Author and screenwriter Grady Hendrix discusses Last Hurrah in the context of Woo’s career and filmography as well as the larger context of cinema, including Woo’s western influences. Like the Woo interview, it’s illustrated with clips and stills.
Note this is not a scan of a vintage reel, but a remastered HD trailer with reformatted titles.
Color Bars (:20)
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.