The flurry of films chronicling the exploits of legendary martial-arts master Ip Man (1893–1972) suggests that the subtitle here is misleading. The Final Fight? Not likely, not if this icon of coolness and nostalgia continues to sell tickets. It’s been a full three weeks since Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster was released, so to recap for the uninitiated: Ip Man changed the world of kung fu with his Wing Chun style, living long enough to send forth an army of followers and teachers, among them Bruce Lee.
The Final Fight begins halfway through the story (director Herman Yau already surveyed his younger years in 2010’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man), as the man (now played by Anthony Wong) arrives in Hong Kong in 1949 after the communist takeover of mainland China. He sets up a humble school in a rooftop studio, shrugs off rivals, and establishes a curious relationship with a loyal singer (Zhou Chuchu) whose loyalty to him seems to have sprung out of a 1950s Douglas Sirk picture. Which is not a bad thing.
Bullet ballet maestro John Woo was lured to Hollywood in 1992, leaving his country on his ultimate Hong Kong bullet-fest spectacle, Hard Boiled. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Full Contact, still Ringo Lam‘s most celebrated film, came out the same year. Stripped down and savage where Woo is big, busy, and whirring with more flying bullets than a small war, you could call Full Contact the anti-John Woo Hong Kong gangster film. Where Woo prized loyalty under fire—even adversaries found themselves bonding via bullets—for Lam, violence is the catalyst for mistrust, betrayal and a poisoning of one’s character by hate and vengeance.
Full Contact is also Lam’s answer to the American crime movie, driven by the hyperactive energy that powered the entire Hong Kong industry and populated by crazed, unstable personalities extreme even by HK movie standards. It’s all about devoted friends colliding with treacherous partners, with betrayal, vengeance and collateral damage left in its wake. Three buddies join forces for a heist that leaves one dead, another maimed, and the third forced to betray his best friend or die. Loyalty under fire only destroys what family they have left, and reveals the weaknesses of the survivors.
Hong Kong movies of the era sometimes borrowed from American movies and Full Contact has more than a few echoes of John Boorman’s 1967 crime film, Point Blank. Chow Yun-fat plays Jeff (as he’s called in the English subtitles), the Lee Marvin role here, a former bar bouncer and papa bear of a small group of devoted buddies who agrees to join forces with a gang led by a flamboyant, sadistic, unabashedly gay crime lord named Judge (Simon Yam) for a heist that will pay off the debt of his best friend, Sam (Anthony Wong). Judge has other ideas, turning on Jeff and leaving him for dead along with an entire family that they gleefully execute out of nothing but pique. But Jeff comes back from the dead and returns for revenge like a phantom, wreaking havoc on those who betrayed or forgot him, losing his brotherly warmth in the cold forge of revenge. He turns himself into an agent of chaos and leaves his own collateral in his wake.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.
With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.