Odd Couple

Odd Couple (Bo ming dan dao duo ming qiang) (1979)

Odd Couple (Bo ming dan dao duo ming qiang) first published by Movie Gazette, 8 March 2005

Once a year two elderly warriors, the King of Sabres (Sammo Hung) and the King of Spears (Lau Kar-wing), meet at Wulin Sacred Place to see whose martial art is superior – but as neither of the constantly bickering pair ever wins and both know one another too well, each agrees to take on a student, and to let a younger generation fight it out. The King of Sabres tricks watermelon-seller Stubborn Wing (Kar-wing, in a dual rôle) into becoming his student, the King of Spears persuades boatman Fatty Ah Yo (Hung, again) to learn his craft, and after a period of training, the stage is set for both young men to clash – but Laughing Bandit (Leung Kar-yan), a battle-scarred enemy from the old men’s past, has returned to wreak his deadly revenge. It will take the skills of all four to defeat him – if only they can stop fighting each other.

The conflict in this film is not just between long sword and short spear, but between young and old, between Kar-wing’s Southern and Hung’s Northern fighting style, between Hung’s training in operatic performance and Kar-wing’s more practical technique – and because each also plays the pupil of the other, either actor must demonstrate his mastery of both styles and both weapons, not to mention the bare-fisted kung fu which they use in the climactic battle, before reverting in the coda to operatic tumbling. Such versatility makes for extraordinary spectacle, and the fight choreography (often filmed in long shot without cuts) is breathtaking.

Odd Couple, however, is a martial arts comedy. For those unfamiliar with the subgenre, this means that the film is brimming with knockabout slapstick broader than any sword – which can work well when it combines with fighting to create daft acrobatic stunts, but is just plain irksome when it stands on its own in combat-free scenes of dialogue. Equally amateurish is the throwaway nature of the plot, where a range of ill-integrated characters are introduced without warning and dispatched just as suddenly – like the agonisingly unfunny comic playboy Mr Rock (Dean Shek in yet another of his w[h]acky rôles), or Leung Kar-yan’s archvillain who is not so much as mentioned until his appearance in the last third of the film.

So if you like tight plotting, sharp lines and rapier wit, watch Neil Simon’s 1965 play The Odd Couple or Gene Saks’ 1968 film of the same name – but only on the understanding that for all their hostility, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are never literally at each other’s throats. Still, with its relentless and inventive kung fu sequences, using a variety of techniques and weapons, Lau Kar-wing’s film more than makes up for what it lacks in subtle repartee or solid characterisation. It also, for what it’s worth, offers the most unpalatable sequence involving the comsumption of raw eggs since Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Strap: Lau Kar-wing’s mixed martial arts, mistaken identity extravaganza kicks ass – if only Neil Simon had written the script…

Anton Bitel