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REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic


Hong Kong 1920. Fai Yuk-su is bored by school and on the verge of being expelled. He often daydreams of being a martial arts hero and draws pictures of his exploits during class. One evening, he rescues timid maid Siu-yu from being sold into prostitution by Wang, her evil, flesh merchant master who operates with the collusion of the authorities, and whose son, the Scorpion King, protects him and enforces his whims. Fai’s father sends the youth to live with his Uncle Yi and work in the latter’s noodle shop, but in between his sessions in the kitchen, Fai also begins to receive instruction in strength and power from Jean-Paul, a muscle-bound health guru. However, Wang wants his girl back and the Scorpion King is looking for Fai ….


Considering this film came out on video in the UK around the same time as the mediocre Dwayne Johnson [known then, of course, just as The Rock] flick hit cinemas, I find it strange that it wasn’t under its other main title Operation Scorpio. Though a huge flop in Hong Kong, to the point where I couldn’t even find a picture of the original Hong Kong poster to use for this review, it soon gathered an international cult following. Produced by Sammo Hung, it’s a flawed but mostly enjoyable martial arts movie which, while it is firmly in the tradition of kung fu movies of the time it was made in with its extensive wirework and slightly exaggerated powers of the fighters, also has a strong element of the old-school martial arts films with their more grounded action. It has some great things in it for fans of this kind of movie, though some serious flaws hold it back from being a true classic. For example, it has one of the greatest fighting performances of the time by Wong Jin as the Scorpion King, whose awe-inspiring kicking skills approach those of the great Hwang Jang Lee [Drunken Master]. He also has amazing charisma and you can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on-screen. Unfortunately, it also has a rather weak hero in Ching Kar Lok. He mostly plays his role for comedy and seems to trying to channel Jackie Chan, but lacks Chan’s grace and charisma and just becomes irritating.

The Scorpion King opens with a wonderfully over the top sequence where Fai is battling villains in his mind. The colours are garishly bright and the action totally over the top. Then we switch to the real world, and we see that Fai is a lazy dreamer who can just about evade some bullies but is certainly no fighter. For most of the running time, Fai doesn’t even fight. Instead, the movie is often taken up with lengthy training montages, which are usually fun and sometimes have a Rocky feel about them, but don’t really contain much originality and sometimes seem to waste time.  There is though a wonderful Karate Kid-type moment when, after weeks of slaving in Uncle Wi’s kitchen cooking noodles, Fai is told by Wi that he has actually been teaching him martial arts all along, telling him: “washing and tossing are the basics of kung fu“. Still, it’s nice to see a Hong Kong martial arts film extoll the benefits of more western-style training emphasising things like power and good nutrition alongside the more complex eastern kind.

The fighting is kept to a minimum and mostly given to the Scorpion King until the final reel, where Fai and his uncle eventually take on the bad guys. Uncle Wi is played by Shaw Brothers legend Lau Kar Leung, star and director of many classics of the genre including The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin reviewed elsewhere on this website. Though in his mid 50’s, he still delivers the goods especially in a truly ‘hell yeah’ moment where he cuts loose with the three-sectioned staff. The lengthy duel between Fai and the Scorpion King never bores because of the diverse techniques on show while wirework is not used that much. Yuen is so good he just about manages to make his ‘scorpion stance’, where he drops down onto his hands and one foot, curves the other foot over his back, and scampers about from side to side, seem lethal. Unfortunately former break-dancer Kar Lok, who also incorporates break-dancing moves a few times, is given the task of making something called the ‘eel technique’ seem like a useful fighting skill. Inspired by the sight of an eel writhing on the ground, he flops about on his stomach like a fish out of water. At times like this the film seems to be poking fun at conventions of the genre, but only half-heartedly.

The romantic subplot is rather lame here. Despite the beauty of May Lo, it doesn’t really convince and is all-but forgotten about after a while anyway. As usual, a love ballad, with translated lyrics which don’t work too well, plays during the obligatory romantic montage. Though David Lai, who did such a superb job on Saviour Of The Soul but doesn’t exhibit much style here, is credited as director, somebody else called Yuen Tak directed the action and it’s so well shot that it almost feels like you are watching two films. Considering the mess of action shooting you often get today, it’s just great watching a battle from an older movie where you can actually see all the moves, though faster cutting is well employed in some choice moments. Scorpion King doesn’t quite work; the story isn’t original, interesting or convincing enough to support a film which doesn’t really get into the fighting properly until the final quarter, and more could have been done with the idea of a man who daydreams of being a hero and then draws his daydreams. The good bits though are definitely worth waiting for and there are just enough fun moments dotted along the way to enjoy before.

Rating: ★★★★★★½☆☆☆

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About Dr Lenera 1980 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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