Not even the barest-bones of releases can stop Eureka!’s restoration of Royal Warriors from being a near-essential purchase for action junkies.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener disc provided by the film’s UK distributor, Eureka! Entertainment.
The ones who manage to break ground first are often the ones most remembered and lionised by history. Yes, Madam!, the 1985 Cory Yuen action-comedy which made leading stars out of Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock, was the instigator of Hong Kong’s “girls-with-guns” movement, contemporary-set female-led action movies in a time where the genre was heavily-male-dominated. It was also, to be kind, a mess of a movie actively at war with itself as producers Sammo Hung and John Sham, of nascent production company D&B Films, lost a lot of confidence in the female buddy-cop drama Madam was pitched as and retooled it into a Three Stooges-esque comedy where Yeoh & Rothrock were borderline side-characters. The film was a smash-hit, likely aided by having perhaps the final fight to end all final fights, and is still a highly-enjoyable watch in spite of its hanging together with Pritt-Stick and dreams. But it’s definitely a compromised first-step, one more notable for its historical significance and phenomenal stunt-work than its overall quality as a movie.
One year later, Yeoh would re-team with D&B Films for another “girls-with-guns” actioner, this time directed by cinematographer David Chung. Perhaps the success of Yes, Madam! allayed the prior fears of Sham – or perhaps because Sammo Hung was not a listed producer this time – as Royal Warriors is, from the jump, a tangibly more confident film than its predecessor. No side-lining of Yeoh to let the male comic relief do their schtick, no wild swings in tone from scene-to-scene, and a coherent plot with actual complete character arcs. If Yes, Madam! feels in constant reorientation of its narrative aims, Royal Warriors is a movie laser-focussed on what it wants to be and aims to deliver the most satisfying possible version of that.
That, in case you were wondering, is a good old-fashioned revenge drama. On a flight back to Hong Kong from Japan, duty-driven CID Inspector Michelle Yip (Yeoh), insular and reclusive Japanese Interpol agent Peter Yamamoto (Hiroyuki Sananda), and goofy Air Marshall Michael Wong (err, Michael Wong) get caught up in a hijacking intended to free a mob boss. Teaming up to foil the spectacular hostage situation, their actions invoke the wrath of the hijackers’ two friends who, having formed a “til death” bond in the Vietnam War, conspire to wreak holy hell upon the mismatched trio’s lives in retaliation. Since this is a mid-80s Hong Kong flick, charmingly overblown melodrama played completely straight with genuine care for its characters – culminating in a metaphorical battle for one’s everlasting soul according to East Asian spiritualism regarding burial rights – ensues.
It’s a narrative painted in broad strokes, right down to Peter having a really sweet family who get just enough screentime for any action vet to twig on where they’re going, but these are some very effective broad strokes. Each member of the central trio has their own unique energy and play off each other really well. Peter, as the pack-in essay by James Oliver notes, was one of the first Japanese characters in a post-WWII Hong Kong film to be given a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal, and Sanada brings both his stoic badass coolness and open vulnerability to the role; if this is your first exposure to him, you can immediately see why this man was such an icon in Japanese cinema. Michelle is very much in line with Yeoh’s character from Yes, Madam!, but the additional screentime and her partnership with Michael allows us to see more dimension than in that prior movie; somebody with a strong sense of justice, willing to turn a blind-eye if it gets results, and often too polite for her own good. The serious turns in the back-half also allow Yeoh an early chance to show off her dramatic range.
Michael, meanwhile, can risk coming off as Warriors’ token comic relief. A happy-go-lucky, somewhat clumsy and socially-awkward lover-boy who spends much of his runtime trying to get with Michelle. Almost every scene he’s in, he’s trying it on to some degree with her and, whilst not incompetent, his contributions to the action are negligible compared to his co-stars. Yet, it turns out this is the point. Michael functions as the love interest which would typically go to a woman in films of this era, and his constant attempts to undercut the gravity of the situation stem from his insecurities about the kind of movie he’s stuck in. His arc, a surprisingly moving one too, revolves around recognising his immaturity and considering others’ feelings before his own. Wong really nails this, he turns out to be the heart of the piece, with his natural charm and likeable chemistry alongside Yeoh which keeps their interactions from tipping over into creepy.
Again, none of this is especially revelatory, but it is all genuinely engaging and effective. I found myself shocked at just how much the drama of the narrative was gripping me, in particular the decision to display moments of empathy for the villains so that we understand their psychology and consequently root that much harder against their despicable bastardry, rather than waiting for the next action setpiece. It almost makes me lament harder for the version of Yes, Madam! which did place full trust in the story of Yeoh and Rothrock.
Oh, right, the action. Don’t mistake my reticence to discuss it up until now as some kind of subliminal foreshadowing of my feelings. The action here is fucking stellar. Sure, nothing tops the instant iconism of Madam!’s close-out brawl, but, hot damn, do Chung’s team – headed up by stunt co-ordinators Hoi Mang and Blackie Shou-Liang Ko – come real close! What the big action sequences in Royal Warriors best illustrate, once you get over the impressive feats of athleticism and thrillingly lax approach to health and safety, was 80s Hong Kong’s ability to tell coherent physical stories better than anyone else then and arguably since. The plane hijacking, in particular, is one of those wonderful instances where a movie takes full advantage of a space for its action; the compacted populace of potential crossfire victims, overhead luggage compartments which can knock guns out of commission, bay curtains for bladed weapon defence, Chekov’s hand grenade… Just a continual escalation which keeps finding new ways to excite and surprise, with a coup de grace which had me giddily giggling.
And the California nightclub shootout! Oh, man, we have got to talk about the California club shootout! This thing should be on any self-respecting list of the greatest action scenes of all-time! A gorgeous opening dolly-crane that establishes the geography of this two-floor club. Slowly bringing all three of our protagonists and antagonist into the scene together as we wait to see who will recognise whom first. Little mini-vignettes with the many patrons so they don’t become anonymous corpses when the shooting starts. All of the glass and neon which drenches the scene in pure mid-80s atmosphere. The chaos when bullets start flying, bodies get bloodily perforated, bystanders inadvertently getting in both sides’ way and adding to the peril. The game of bluff between our killer and Michelle & Peter when the former has Michelle hostage with an empty gun. The brutal intensity of the two-on-one fistfight that ensues afterwards, and dramatic undercurrent of Peter seeking vengeance whilst Michelle tries to merely disable. It’s just non-stop chef’s kisses!
Whilst nothing that comes after is quite on California’s level, all of the action in Royal Warriors is just superlative. A fun, low-stakes prologue butt-kicking with a badass handstand axe-kick; a pile-up of a car-chase with enough fishtails to induce passive whiplash in viewers; a fight in a front-loader that maybe gave Elizabeth Banks an idea or two for the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot; and a finale which involves tanks, mine carts, chainsaws, and a quarry full of explosives. Despite the master craftsmanship of it all, this can seem a bit quaint in the face of 1986’s monster game-changing John Woo hit A Better Tomorrow – probably an equal reason as to why this film seems to slip through the cracks when discussing classic Hong Kong action. But, hell, you should see that craftsmanship! There were a minimum of sixteen times where I found myself instinctively punching the air or hooting along in delight to Royal Warriors! If that’s not the measure of an action classic worth picking up, I don’t know what is.
Do bear in mind, however, that you will only be picking up the movie. Perhaps because Yes, Madam! hogs the spotlight in Yeoh’s pre-Police Story III filmography, Eureka! don’t seem to have found much in the way of additional content for this Blu-Ray release. A half-hour interview with producer John Sham from the 2018 Far East Film Festival, which is more about his general career rather than Royal Warriors specifically, and a fluffy ten-minute featurette about the locations both Warriors and Madam were shot around, by Mike Leeder & Arne Venema which (for better or worse) resembles a segment from a magazine show on Bravo in 2007, are all you get outside of the usual pair commentary tracks. Like with the Yes, Madam! release, which I’m going to assume this was produced at the same time as, no women get to offer their takes or historical expertise on the movie and that still feels like a major failure on the part of Eureka!. (And I promise I’m not just saying this because I am friends with female critics and film historians who would chomp at the bit for a chance to get work on these.)
That said… I would still call this release worth your money. The restoration job isn’t as immediately night-and-day as the one pulled on Yes, Madam! – the original Hong Kong trailer included as the lone additional bonus looks acceptable enough – but is still fantastic. If you compare the clips of the California shootout, for example, on prior prints to the 2K restoration here, you’ll notice that the darks are less muddy and the interior lights glare much less. Like with Madam, this is a restoration which cleans up the visual noise but retains the feel of the original filmic print. A similar job has been done to the original Cantonese audio track, in all its post-sync vocal dub and awkwardly cutting-in synth score glory. Even if we were setting aside the fact that, as Eureka!’s press release boasts, this is Royal Warriors’ first home media release in the UK period, I’d still say that the Blu-Ray is the definitive way to watch the film short of tracking down the original celluloid and renting out an independent cinema screen.
The ones which break ground first tend to dominate the historical narrative. With any luck, this Eureka! release can cause Royal Warriors to step out of Yes, Madam!’s shadow and finally gain the respect it deserves. Yes, it’s not reinventing any wheels. Yes, you can sometimes see the padded floors used to not literally murder the stunt-people bounce on-camera. Yes, the score is pretty crap. Yes, you can nitpick a film like this any thousand of ways in comparison to what came before and after. But, as any action lover knows, none of that matters if you reach the end credits and immediately want to roundhouse kick the nearest piece of furniture. Royal Warriors did that for me. Hopefully it can now do that for many other people too.
Royal Warriors is available on special edition Blu-Ray from the 23rd of January.
Callie Petch keeps these promises, these promises.