Review: Odd Couple (1979)

Directed by:
Cast: , , , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Odd Couple is one of the quintessential kung fu films focused on the use of weapons, rather than unarmed forms of combat. Other weapon-centric flicks include Heroes of the East and Legendary Weapons of China, both directed by Lau Kar Leung for Shaw Brothers studios. Odd Couple is directed by Lau Kar Wing — brother of Lau Kar Leung — for the independent film company Gar Bo Films which he led along with Sammo Hung and Karl Maka. It’s a lower budget movie than what could be afforded by Shaw Brothers, but the binary focal points of Odd Couple — the all out fight choreography and the comedy broad enough to drive a mining truck through — do not feel compromised in any way. What’s on screen feels like exactly what this team would want to put there, and with a couple of exceptions depending on one’s sense of humour, it’s excellent stuff.

The plot of Odd Couple gives the movie an ideal structure to drop in a huge variety of action on the regular without feeling contrived. Well, it is a kung fu comedy flick, so “contrived” is relative to the genre. Each piece of action is a natural result of the story, which progresses at a pace that makes each new excuse for a scuffle, for the most part, let just enough anticipation build to get the audience keen for more, rather than switch off due to armchair battle fatigue.

A time-honoured, stage-set opening quickly introduces the traditional 18 weapons in Chinese martial arts, but immediately sharpens the focus to the spear and sabre, the primary long and short range weapons respectively. These are demonstrated, with some groovy graphical overlays, by Sammo and Lau Kar Wing (whom “Lau” will refer to from this point on). Then the story proper begins.

King of Sabres (Sammo, left) and King of Spears (Lau, right) playing out their seemingly eternal conflict.

Two elder martial arts statesmen are introduced; the King of Sabres (Sammo) and the King of Spears (Lau). Each gets to best some opposition to give the audience a teaser of their expertise, before meeting up for the ultimate rematch to decide whose skills pay the most bills. This scintillating display of co-ordination and control by the actors could be the finale of any other kung fu film. It’s that good! It’s even shot in familiar-looking epic showdown surroundings, on a hill with a backdrop of grassy mountains plunging down to a body of water dotted with islands, which will ring a reminder bell or two for fans of kung fu films from this era such as The Young Master. The match ends in yet another of a series of draws, which the masters blame on sympathy bred from familiarity holding them back. To get out of this predicament they each pledge to train a student to fight in their masters’ place having never met, and thus free from emotional ties. This is where the genius of Odd Couple begins to take shape, as unlike other films and TV shows with the same title, this movie features TWO odd couples, making for double the trouble (and action and hilarity).

Ah Yo (Sammo again, on the left) and Potato/Big Stupid (Mars, on the right) hanging on King of Spears’ every word.

Sammo’s King of Sabres forcibly recruits melon stall owner Stubborn Wing (Lau), and Lau’s King of Spears takes on boatman Ah Yo (Sammo). So an elder version of each actor gets to train a younger version of the other, which handily allows each actor to display their prowess with each main weapon. This duality in characters is huge fun and rather than feeling repetitive makes for a warped funhouse mirror genre double-take as two different master-apprentice stories get to develop. King of Spears plays a bit hard-to-get to lure in his apprentice, while Stubborn Wing and the Sabre King have an antagonistic and “fiery” relationship. The character arcs are more compressed than usual, but they are sketched out enough to carry the rest of the story.

The twin setup means double the training sequences, with some stylish transitions to intercut between them. Then the younger generation are sent out into the world to find each other and settle the score once and for all. The apprentices get to best some inferior challengers of their own, but then a fearsome bandit (Leung Kar-Yan) with scars from the past and a vendetta against both masters draws the twin tales together while putting the Sabre/Spear rivalry on hold (for a time).

Stubborn Wing (Lau again, on the left) trying to get his knife back from the King of Sabres.

There’s a lot going on and it sounds potentially confusing laid out in words, but on screen it’s easy to tell who’s who. Each character is distinct and… memorable. These kung fu comedy films would often trade in physical character traits and peculiarities to a borderline offensive degree and this is another department where Odd Couple goes all in. There’s an endless adornment of facial hair and particularly protuberant moles. Each master has an off-sider and aiding King of Spears is Potato — more crassly known as Big Stupid in some translations — played by Mars sporting massive buck teeth and a half-shaved head dotted with tufts of hair. King of Sabres assistant is a hunchback played by Billy Chan, who strangely disappears from the movie half-way through without explanation, but — in another dual role — Billy Chan later pops up as a henchman with bleached blonde hair. Karl Maka looks decidedly plain in his cameo, but he does get to slip on a banana peel. Depending on the resolution of the source one is watching, close-ups reveal the seams and edges of all the prosthetic bits and bobs, which makes it even more tacky.

Taking all this absurdity to the next level is the late Dean Shek, playing the one, the only, the never-to-be-repeated, Master Rocking! Gyrating his way through scenes accompanied by a sycophantic sidekick and contemporary disco beats, he’s an incredibly bizarre spectacle, even for this odd movie. Dean Shek excelled at playing comedic side characters, like his arrogant martial arts school supervisor roles in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, or the drifter who teaches bogus fight techniques in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. His total commitment to Master Rocking is worthy of appreciation, even as the character pushed me to the limits of tolerance for this kind of buffoonery. In a rather gross sequence, Dean Shek has to hold raw eggs in his mouth to disgorge on cue, and doing this for however many takes were required to get the job done shows dedication to the craft.

Master Rocking (Dean Shek in the green) doing his thing.

For kung fu film fans there’s also referential comedy to add an extra dimension to the humour. Ah Yo’s name sounds like “aieyoh” when spoken, a standard pained yelp when taking a hit or fall in Hong Kong martial arts movies. Odd Couple plays up this auditory overlap on several occasions. When Master Rocking hires some ex-opera performers as extra muscle, these colourfully-attired characters fight with a stately, step-by-step flair, that plays out with opera percussion instead of the usual fight sound effects, which is very entertaining. Sammo rapidly blinks his eyes in disbelief like he’s a human lion head prop when these characters begin squaring up and posing.

Despite the large sideline in silliness, the film does get a bit darker later on. However the humour is maintained throughout, with the two old rivals remaining cantankerous frenemies to the end.

Tone considerations aside, the variety of action is what really makes Odd Couple stand out as a classic of its time. Both Sammo and Lau get credited as martial arts directors and there are three credited assistant action directors as well: Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying and Billy Chan. It’s a fantastic collaborative effort and the high quality of choreography is consistently well captured all the way through. Fast pans and tilts, rapid zooms, and some handheld movement, rather than covering for lacklustre execution, instead show the performances in the best possible light with razor sharp precision. Also, for a film so concerned with giving weapon forms their due, the one major bit of unarmed fight work the team sneaks into Odd Couple is given just as much care. It’s a mostly two vs one affair, so fluid it’s as much dance as fight. Were it any tighter it would snap the film on which it was shot.

Would not want to take a kick like that from Sammo. Yikes.

Even the villain of the piece, despite appearing quite late, has distinct characteristics. He wields a short handled guandao, like a combination sabre and spear, to defeat both his adversaries with a single weapon that combines both their disciplines.

It’s a shame Gar Bo Films only made three features — Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog and Knockabout being the other two — as smaller independent teams with the freedom to go nuts like this produced some very memorable projects. The comedy of Odd Couple stretches the boundaries of taste at times, but so much first class action springing from a perfectly concocted plot keeps the good times rolling.

8.5 dual roles out of 10.
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