Equally excellent in the fields of action, comedy and drama, and after dozens of major roles in Hong Kong, Chinese and American productions, Michelle Yeoh can seemingly do, well, everything. Everywhere. Maybe, even, all at once. Having recently been awarded an Oscar for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, many folks will be looking to catch up on her back catalogue and Magnificent Warriors is an early career highlight.
After her breakout buddy cop role with Cynthia Rothrock in Yes, Madam! Yeoh was immediately lined up for even bigger productions, two of which were directed by David Chung. Royal Warriors was a hard hitting modern day tale of vengeance with Michelle again playing a police officer, but Magnificent Warriors gave her a lighter role as a peppy mercenary pilot in a 20th century period piece.
While comparisons are often made to the Indiana Jones trilogy, Magnificent Warriors very much forges it’s own path. Yes, Yeoh wears a leather jacket and wields a whip. So far, so Indy. After the opening scene though, her primary weapon and tool becomes the distinctive rope dart, seen in most variations of the poster artwork for the film. The leather jacket sticks around for a bit longer and returns for the big finishing battle, because it looks rugged and cool. Another similarity to Indiana Jones is the setting during the build up to World War II, but rather than dastardly Nazis, it’s dastardly Japanese as antagonists.
These invaders have occupied Kayi City in Bhutan and are pressuring Mayor Yau Dat (Lowell Lo) to let them retrofit the town castle as a poison gas plant. Fok Ming-Ming (Yeoh) is tasked with whisking Yau Dat away so his knowledge of the Japanese plans can be shared with Chinese resistance. Secret Agent 001 (Derek Yee) is already on the ground in the city, sporting another snazzy leather jacket and packing a crossbow, ready to assist Ming-Ming with her mission.
The movie’s setup phase keeps the pace whipping along, featuring a couple of melées and an aerial dogfight between Ming-Ming in her yellow Tiger Moth biplane and a Japanese fighter pilot. The use of under-cranking makes this airborne battle look a bit odd, when it was actually real footage shot in America. Top Gun came out a year earlier with its jet fighter action filmed in similar desert locations, so perhaps Magnificent Warriors wanted to avoid appearing ponderous. Like the race cars in Thunderbolt, the planes sometimes look like models zipping around, but it works OK with the historical setting. It’s like old timey news footage with more colour.
Once Ming-Ming arrives at Kayi City, the rest of the film takes place in this area. It’s a very well realised location. Filmed out in Taiwan, the full scale set gives Magnificent Warriors the epic sweep on which adventure films thrive. A couple of suspiciously modern tanks rock up near the end, but the sets and costumes are fully decked out with detail even if everything is not 100% accurate.
There’s some intrigue and strategising as Ming-Ming enters the city to rendezvous with Secret Agent 001 and help Yau Dat escape without tipping off the Japanese general Toga (Matsui Tetsuya) and his cohorts. A case of mistaken identity with a conman drifter (Richard Ng) is an obvious setup for a funny side-plot, but the misunderstanding passes surprisingly quickly. Comedic misadventures on the whole are relatively brief, integrating into the hearty adventure tone quite well. Richard Ng is in a genuine supporting role and while always entertaining his character plays a part in the story. Only one bit where people relate each others’ back stories while they are lined up for execution drags the story tempo down.
The music rolls along steadily, but suffers in a different way. The effectiveness of the rousing theme composed by Chan Wing Leung is dulled through reiteration without much variation. I doubt there was as much time for composition as John Williams would have on big Hollywood productions — and if that’s the case the repetition is understandable — but it ends up diminishing the wow factor a bit when a daring motorbike jump is scored the same as the last ten big moments before it.
While Michelle Yeoh carries the action, she’s ably supported by Derek Yee and the plucky Cindy Lau Chin-Dai playing Chin-chin, a local ready to leap into action in defence of her city. On the opposition side Hwang Jang Lee and Lo Meng play General Toga’s chief heavies, although the latter doesn’t get to see much combat. And indispensable for big productions like this, there’s the bevy of stunt performers taking the hits, falls, and getting set on fire.
For the final third, Magnificent Warriors takes on the air of a war film. A raid on a nearby fuel depot, followed by the entire town rising up against the Japanese, are both huge scenes. Swords, spears, guns, mortars and catapults; it’s an armourer and prop masters delight. It also feels really dangerous. Dynamite, grenades and petrol fly everywhere, which apart from the detonations themselves means a lot of the fighting takes place in close proximity to the flames. One hair-raising and probably hair-singeing stunt has people leap out of a jeep an instant before it turns into a fireball! All this blowing up and burning down of the sets really takes the production to another level. Royal Warriors blasted some cars and a quarry into craters, A Better Tomorrow 2 came packing more than guns for its finale and the pyro-pleasing Police Story 2 joined the fireworks show the following year. It was an explosive time for Hong Kong cinema.
Given the amount of destruction wrought in the climax, the ending is more subdued than most of the film. Good thing the theme tune gets an encore to recall all the heroic feats!
Hong Kong didn’t make many movies like this, so it’s well worth checking Magnificent Warriors out. Everything on screen looks fantastic, but a blockbuster needs a strong lead to rally around. Michelle Yeoh is it. That she delivers a performance with such charisma and charm after a watch commercial, two minor parts — in The Owl vs Bumbo and Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars — and only the one headline role in Yes, Madam!, her rise as a movie star was swift. Given her sustained presence in global productions and her recent plaudits, decades later that star power may be yet to reach its apogee.