Butcher Wing is a good-natured manchild who’s always in trouble with Master Wong Fei-hung of the Po Chi Lam School, where he studies. One day, he mistakenly attacks a member of the rival Five Dragons School and angry Master Ko demands satisfaction. He warns Master Wong that he will destroy Butcher and the entire academy if any more disgrace befalls the Dragons. Before taking a planned trip, Fei-hung warns Butcher not to get in any more trouble, but the arrival of two disparate entities to town will challenge this mandate. First is Butcher’s long lost brother, who along with his new wife is searching for the “skinny pig” sibling he remembers from years ago. Enter from the outskirts of dishonor Ko Hai Toi, Master Ko’s evil, shiftless son. He kidnaps Wing’s sister in law and even gets the dimwitted meat cutter to beat up his own kinfolk. With the help of a wine-obsessed vagrant, Beggar Kao (who may just be a kung fu master himself), Butcher sets out to set things right. But thanks to the wicked ways of the evil Ko Hai Toi, a series of tragic events leave Wing disgraced, disheartened, and marked for death by the Five Dragons. His only hope? Learn the iron arm techniques of the drunken derelict and use them, in combination with the techniques of Master Wong and the “five animals” school of kung fu, to defeat Master Ko, his family, and followers. And if he succeeds, he will bring honor and respect to Po Chi Lam and be forever known as The Magnificent Butcher.
Even though it ends too abruptly and takes a little while to get started, The Magnificent Butcher is still one of the best old-fashioned martial arts movies ever made, a rip-roaring adventure of loyalty and honor, family and fiends. Director/stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, newly discovered by Western fans with his wire fighting time tricks in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here shows why he is considered one of the greatest kung fu fight film creators of all time. Everything about The Magnificent Butcher is indeed spectacular. From the setting and set designs to the acting and athletic prowess of the renowned cast, this is the kind of foreign action film that gets non-fans instantaneously hooked on the genre, like John Woo’s epic crime dramas or Jackie Chan’s stunt spectaculars. If you don’t want to run out and immediately buy every film the beefy, gregarious Sammo Hung ever made after witnessing his physical brilliance in this movie, you just don’t appreciate true talent. Probably the least well known of all the famous Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts film stars, some may recognize the fleshy force from his short lived television series of a few years back, entitled Martial Law. But most action aficionados have followed “Big Brother” since he battled Bruce Lee in the opening of Enter the Dragon and watched him easily move from comedy (Wheels on Meals) to horror (Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind) to director of some of Hong Kong’s biggest hits (Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy). The Magnificent Butcher is primo Sammo and a definitive representation of the Asian action film in all its glory.
The reason most fans are drawn to martial arts films is for their spectacular stunts and freewheeling fights, and the ones created for The Magnificent Butcher are mind-boggling. Intricately choreographed like a tap dancer’s well worn routine and genuinely moving to behold, their mix of ballet with brutality, skill, and showmanship reminds the viewer of the physicality of Gene Kelly mixed with the ingenuity of Fred Astaire in their heydays. So graceful and delicate are the moves Hung and the others must manage with spilt second timing that their age and size just disappear. The minute they break into a series of intricate hand or foot moves, or they pick up a found object with which to attack or defend, a beautiful mesmerizing mystery unfolds before our unblinking eyes. Honestly, you will never witness physical agility and grace as profound as in the dance like kung fu exchanges in this film. Each is a minor miracle unto itself, but two specific sequences demand special note. Kwan Tak-hing, another legend in the world of Asian cinema, plays the role of Master Wong Fei-hung (sort of a Chinese El Santo, he essayed this character some seventy times in his career), and even though he is 74, feeble and frail here, when challenged to a calligraphy duel with Lee Hoi-San’s Master Ko of the Five Dragon School, he rises to the occasion spectacularly. Thus begins a complex hand and paintbrush battle that will have you picking up your jaw from the home theater room floor. As with all the clashes in The Magnificent Butcher, just when you think it can’t get any more multifaceted or outrageous, they add a flip or a close-up exchange that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. Sammo Hung also has a creepy fight with one of Master Ko’s henchmen, an insane fighter known as the Weird (or maybe it was Wild) Cat who uses a kind of claws and feline mentality style of fighting. Skittering up the walls, across the ceiling, and over and around columns, the tabby terror gives Butcher Wing a true run for his money, and between the oddity of the character and the intricacy of the hand-to-hand combat, it’s a truly memorable sequence.
But probably the best thing that Sammo Hung and director Yuen Woo-ping accomplish in this film is grounding the over-the-top skirmishes of skill in reality. Some martial arts movies make their participants out to be gods, unable to be killed without near supernatural special moves and almost impervious to injury or disability. Not so in The Magnificent Butcher. Characters die at the hand of their combatants, but not in some single blow balderdash. Indeed, each victory and/or defeat is earned in long drawn out encounters where nothing seems superhuman. And our hero is also a main recipient of pain and loss. Hung is a fantastic actor when he has to show remorse or resolve. While one assumes, from the goofy comedy undercurrent that flows through this (nay, most) kung fu capers, that Hung is trading on his size for some manner of slapstick silliness, the reality is that his clichéd jovial fat man persona hides a wealth of depth and desire. When shown in solo practice mode, running literarily hundreds of moves and combinations in elaborate, complex exercises, there is nothing dopey or dumb about him. He is all poise and power. Woo-ping’s camera is also precise, never interfering or disturbing the action. Like a great musical director, he seems to understand instinctively where the lens needs to be to capture the best angles and shots of the action. About the only complaint that can be offered is that the movie could have used an extra five minutes, post finale, as kind of a coda to Butcher’s story. He is such a likeable character, and we have followed him for almost two hours, that the freeze frame joke closing is kind of a letdown. Still, for the vast majority of its running time, Hung and Woo-ping create a timeless work of magical martial arts action.