Yuen Biao had worked as an acrobatic stuntman in Hong Kong films throughout the 1970s, and finally made his mark as a leading man in Knockabout, Sammo Hung’s fourth directorial effort. Biao plays Yipao, close friend of Ka-Yan Leung’s Tipao. The two are con-artists who are frequently bested by Fat Beggar (Hung). They attach themselves to a skilled master, Silver Fox (Lau Kar-Leung), who turns on them when they discover that he’s a wanted murderer. Yipao must get on Beggar’s good side to learn the skills he needs to defeat Wu-Tai.
This film is simply aiming for action and comedy, with no goal other than to entertain. The comedy may make or break it for the viewer: it’s non-stop, over-the-top slapstick all the way. Plot doesn’t matter, with breaks between fights rarely lasting more than a few minutes. The characterisation is also quite basic and, rather damningly, none of the characters are especially likeable.
The martial arts is not impressive at the film’s beginning, reflecting Yipao and Tipao’s inability to defend themselves. It’s well over an hour into the film before Biao’s skills truly shine through, with the Beggar training him in cruel and unusual ways before the two of them launch into a lengthy battle with Silver Fox. The uses of a jump rope during the training and a rope of thorns during the final fight are unmissable. Biao is capable of amazing feats and his timing with mentor Hung is fantastic.
Biao is confident and charismatic as a leading man, pulling off the comedy on the same level as Leung (a more experienced, but usually more serious actor). Kar-Leung is funny in a different way as Silver Fox – he walks around with a self-serious, slightly sad expression, looking like a mopey 70s singer-songwriter. His character’s shift into pure evil makes no sense, but he’s still fun to watch. Hung, however, is highly irritating as the Beggar, pulling endless face twitches in every scene.
Anyone with a low tolerance for slapstick martial arts will not enjoy Knockabout. Nonetheless, the skill shown by Kar-Leung, Hung and, especially, Biao in the last half hour is something special, and the most enduring aspect of the film.