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by Jay Seaver

"They may be old, but they've still got it."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: According to the director, "Gallants" took about ten years to get financing, so one has to wonder - if it had been made then, would it have been giving late-career tributes to different old-school actors, or would Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai, and Teddy Robin have just been playing slightly younger characters? It's a what-if we don't have to ponder, since they're the ones front and center in this movie, and it's lucky to have them.

We start, however, with Wong You-nam as a loser named Cheung. A screw-up at the real estate company he works for, he's been sent to a small village to help buy out tenants for a condo development. Naturally, this means working for Mang (Jin Auyeung), who still hates him from grade school. One of the tenants is a tea shop that used to be a martial arts club, still being run by two of its old students. Tiger ("Bruce" Leung Siu-lung) and Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) are nearly sixty, but they keep faith with their old teacher, Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan), who has been in a coma for thirty years after suffering an aneurysm during an epic duel. Cheung finds himself throwing in with the underdogs when Mang's attempts to have goons steal Law's favorable lease results in the master waking and thinking Cheung is both of his pupils - though Kwai (Jia Xiao-chen), the pretty girl helping out around the shop, is another incentive.

Gallants is the sort of comedy that jumps from bit to bit in the best possible way; directors Clement Cheng Sze-Kit and Derek Kwok Chi-kin (along with writer Frankie Tam) have a real knack for setting up funny situations, milking some good gags from them, and discretely casting them aside when they threaten to get too serious or worn-out. For instance, it's great to have a martial-arts tournament to inspire wacky training montages, but does anyone really want to see Cheung, Tiger, or Dragon suffer the inevitable humiliating beatdown that goes with it? Not really, so the script goes elsewhere, in a direction that's maybe not a laugh riot either, but has some earned sentiment that's not trite.

Which is as it should be, as Gallants loves its older characters. Chen and Leung have filmographies that go back forty years, back to Shaw Brothers classics, and the filmmakers make some nice callbacks to that, from the opening titles which have them showing off their moves in silhouette to Tam Ping-man's narration, which often sounds just like the voiceover in a Shaw trailer. They even revive the practice of crediting the actors with a freeze frame and title on their first appearance. These little retro touches are a lot of fun, giving the film the feel of a throwback without making it an artificial-feeling pastiche.

Also giving it the feel of a throwback? The martial arts, which fulfill the trailer's promise of being wire- and CGI-free, and are really great to watch. Bruce Leung, in particular, can still bring it on the other side of sixty, even if he does spend much of the movie in a leg brace so that the filmmakers can save what our hosts called one of the greatest kicks in kung fu cinema for the end. Leung and Chen may have lost a little bit of speed and power, but their fights are well-done and well-acted, especially Leung's first appearance, which is right up there with any fight scene from recent Hong Kong cinema.

And what's impressive is that there really is acting in the action; we learn about these characters by watching how they fight and even how they go down. That's not all these guys are capable of; Chen and Leung are both funny, charming guys who bicker like an old married couple on-screen, a joy to watch together. Things get even better when Teddy Robin is added to the equation; one of Hong Kong's first rock stars (he scored the movie), he's "on" from the first moment Master Law wakes up, a cantankerous, randy, demanding, larger-than-life personality who somehow never becomes a jerk and a pain. The younger characters know to stay out of these guys' way, although both Wong and Jia are enjoyable, funny support.

"Gallants" ends on a note that seems perfect, even it may flummox some of the younger folks in the audience - not in a bad way, just one that says we won't be able to understand Tiger's and Dragon's reactions until we reach their age. It's a loving way to end a film that clearly loves its subjects, but in a way that involves laughter as much as reverence.

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originally posted: 07/12/10 02:49:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.

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