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Valiant Ones, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Never runs out of pirates to fight."
5 stars

It's stereotyping things a little - okay, a lot - to suggest that the audience that comes to a King Hu series at the Harvard Film Archive whose program talks about the effect these movies had on the Taiwanese film industry or how Hu's wuxia films were like Kurosawa's samurai films or Ford's westerns (superficially pulpy but thematically rich) can't love the same sort of things as the crowd for the late and lamented "Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings" series. But even if you reject that claim entirely, you've got to admit - any movie that has an audience in the HFA making swishing sounds during the swordfights is doing something right.

Attacks by Japanese pirates and native bandits along the coast of China during the reign of Ming emperor Chiang-chen (Zhao Lei) have become enough of an issue that even that decadent monarch decides something needs to be done, and the new governor he appoints for the province, Lin Mao-he (Wu Chia-hsiang) decides that General Chi Li-te (Ho Li-jen) will not be enough to solve the problem. He brings in Colonel Yu Ta-yu (Roy Chiao), who is not just a fine swordsman, but has equal reputations for being devious and cocky. He not only brings a group of soldiers, but a pair of secret weapons: Wu Chi-yuan (Bai Ying), the former bandit known as "The Whirlwind", and his wife Re-shi (Hsu Feng).

Yu Ta-yu has a fair number of men with him, and there's a seemingly endless number of bandits to deal with. That means we're in for a lot of fight scenes - the action's not quite non-stop, but the pauses in between are by and large about Yu plotting where he will next attempt to fight the pirates or attempting to defeat them with subterfuge. King Hu and company knew why people were going to buy tickets for this, and he gave the audience what it wanted. The action isn't just massive in quantity, though - with the action directed by then-up-and-coming fight choreographer Sammo Hung, who also has a role as one of the main villains, it's fast-paced and hard-hitting. There's so much action that one sequence, where the Wus fight a series of bandits in order to demonstrate their skills (including future star Yuen Biao among others), actually starts to seem like too much, with the audience well ready for some more plot by the time it's over.

It's also not limited to the swordfighting material that was Hu's stock in trade. Though this was his last wuxia film (at least until he was the first of six directors to work on 1990's The Swordsman), it actually features more kung fu than swordplay, with Chi-yuan dispatching most of his enemies with his bare hands. That character is at the center of most of the film's action sequences, and Bai Ying looks pretty good as a kung fu action hero. Hsu Feng is also a lot of fun to watch as the swordswoman who tends to figure prominently in Hu's work, with the bandits having their share of good fighters as well.

The cast isn't just chosen for their ability to throw a punch. Hsu Feng has precious few lines, true, but she gives her swordswoman a great no-nonsense personality in how she carries herself; she and Bai Ying also have no trouble giving the impression of being partners who know each other's moves intimately. Bai's Chi-yuan isn't nearly so taciturn as his wife, and Bai plays him with a nifty combination of confidence and good cheer that implies a whole lot more story than is actually told about the character. Roy Chiao plays Yu Ta-yu as maybe a little overbearing in his self-confidence, but it's actually a lot more naturalistic than a character described as somewhat arrogant will often be played in this sort of straight-ahead action movie. Han Ying-chieh pops up as the primary antagonist later on, and he's a darn good one.

For all the action on display here, King Hu doesn't just rely on brute force to get the audience through the movie. There's some subtle (and not-so-subtle) black comedy in how General Chi's armor seems to get more and more elaborate while Yu gets results while presenting himself as a simple merchant. The presentation of the pirates' island hideout may be kind of drawn-out, but Hu gives it a sort of operatic grandeur that makes it well worth the wait. It comes a little while after a crackerjack sequence where Yu and a lieutenant calmly use a go board to silently translate signals into a tactical map for his team that is so well-staged that even audience members unfamiliar with the game can pick up what's going on without any explanation being offered.

It's a shame that Hu didn't stick with the martial arts genre after this; though he cut his teeth on swordfighting, he certainly seems capable of adapting to the kung fu style that was becoming more popular. He certainly made this film a fun ride that more than holds up.

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originally posted: 03/26/13 16:11:43
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Directed by
  King Hu

Written by
  King Hu

  Feng Hsu
  Ying Bai
  Roy Chiao
  Chia-hsiang Wu

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