Given the success of the previous two films co-starring Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, it’s no surprise the Golden Harvest studio produced another, although it took a few years to come to fruition. In the meantime, Jackie had become a superstar and movie theatres were teeming with modern-day Hong Kong action comedies, so the formula was remixed for what is still — despite the pleading puppy dog eyes of millions of fans — the final big screen collaboration for the former opera school classmates.
The film focuses on the three stars, but the central conflict of the story is between fish farm owner Miss Yip (Deannie Yip) and big businessman Boss Wah (Yuen Wah, a fourth opera school classmate on screen) whose factory of… questionable function is draining effluent into the sea. Lawyer Jackie Lung (Jackie Chan) is hired to defend Boss Wah and recruits the shady Wong Fei Hung (Sammo Hung) and eccentric Tung Te Biu (Yuen Biao) to spy on Miss Yip and her cousin Wen Mei Ling (Pauline Yeung), an environmental scientist and main witness in the upcoming legal battle.
It’s a decent enough setup to drive the action and humour and gives our main men some different traits from their usual roles. Jackie played a serious role in drama Heart of Dragon a few years earlier, but his sleazy street-wise lawyer is still a departure from the everyman underdog he played in most action comedies. He angrily slaps a woman in his first scene which dials down his likeability a fair way. Yuen Biao plays his oddball character well, spouting political and philosophical ideas every which way as he tries to be an upstanding citizen in what he sees as a harsh world. His flat is an eye-catching piece of set design, initially because of the glaring product placement outside, but inside with mismatched knick-knacks all over the place and an especially zany aquarium. Sammo’s character indulges his romantic side more than usual, even pulling flirty eyes at one point (scary!), but of the three his is most similar to his previous roles. He still gets a funny name too, mocking the paragon of Chinese folk legend by imitating some classic kung fu moves right after an arms dealing sales pitch.
The less congenial characters are meshed with an overall rougher tone. It’s not in danger of being called gritty, but there is more swearing than usual and drugs become a part of the plot. The direction taken sits a touch uncomfortably with all the happy-go-lucky elements retained from earlier romps. The drama goes way over the top a few times too — an argument conducted in the street via a shared megaphone and a ludicrous court scene will likely leave some eyes sore from all the rolling.
As key driver of the plot, Deannie Yip brings dramatic range and subtlety to her part, showing steely resolve as an embattled small business owner, yet uncertainty towards Wong Fei Hung’s friendliness. Pauline Yeung’s environmental expert is a bit more involved than the wallflower role it could have been, but she comes off pretty flat for the most part. At least she livens up in some warmer moments and pulls off a few dexterous physical tricks. Yuen Wah is a hoot, his twitchy and rubbery affectations essentially reprising his persona from Eastern Condors, the ever-present fan swapped for an incessantly puffed and rolled cigar. He doesn’t get to fight much — a boss in a business suit has plenty of henchman to do that for him — but makes it clear he can if necessary. Speaking of henchman — boy are there a lot of them! Jackie’s and Sammo’s stunt teams combined for this film and seemingly try to one up each other, taking ever more spectacular bruising blows and falls.
Action throughout is exceptional — par for the course for those involved but no less amazing for that — mixing up hard-hitting and comedic encounters. Misunderstandings pit the three brothers against each other in very Three Stooges feeling quarrels, accompanied by circus music that reassures us Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan punching each other in the face is not as much of a downer as it may seem.
Another component borrowed from previous three brothers team-ups is knock-out real life and screen fighter Benny Urquidez, sporting eyeliner and a pony tail for a different look to the one he had in Wheels on Meals. For a moment it looks like there’s going to be a reckoning between him and Sammo (which would have been awesome), but for his big showdown he’s once more pitted against Jackie (which is still awesome). Both combatants are well matched again, exchanging blows at all ranges, although each are noticeably doubled in a couple of slow motion shots which dampens the moment a bit.
As the dust settles on all the beaten bad guys, it’s hard not to see the fractious on screen relationship between the brothers’ characters as harbinger of a break-up of sorts. They have worked together in various combinations since, but never all on screen again. It could never be the same now, 30+ years later, but such a realisation could grant the freedom that wasn’t possible in this film, when expectations of another mega-hit were through the roof. So still we daydream, that Dragons Forever won’t be an ironic farewell to a trio of incredible performers. It’s a pretty great film regardless.