There is a philosophical purity in good martial arts. It is not just a form of self-defence but a true expression of technical ability, devotion to one’s craft and the patience to slowly, but surely, achieve one’s goals. To many, the vast majority of mainstream action cinema (and especially mainstream Hollywood action cinema) has lost sight of the original aims of the medium, losing the meaning of fight scenes in over-cutting to cover the stunt doubles and with gunplay becoming more commonplace than handheld or melee weapon-based combat. But is there still art to be found in martial arts by looking back at the classics of the genre?
Odd Couple was released in 1979 and concerns a pair of martial arts masters known as the King of the Spear (Chia-Yung Liu) and King of the Sword (Sammo Hung) who after a decade of drawing in duels, determine to train a pair of disciples (Sammo Hung and Chia-Yung Liu, respectively) to prove once and for all whose discipline is better. They introduce this via an opening that explains the variety of weapons styles and their relative strengths and weaknesses with the spear acting as a better long range weapon but with only the tip of the weapon being deadly where the sword requires close-range but being effective from tip-to-handle.
It’s important to understand that Odd Couple is a very silly film. It is far from stupid but it is intentionally very silly with its stylised approach to ageing make-up and a sense of humour that may veer too far into stereotypes as to become borderline offensive. But this is just a symptom of a gossamer-light construction that hinge ultimately on acting as connective tissue to take us from fight scene to fight scene. It’s been said before that action films at their core can resemble musicals but with the fight scenes taking the place of songs in displaying the deeper meanings and intentions of the characters (a thing that Scott Pilgrim vs the World and, to be honest, a lot of Bollywood cinema, have taken further by using both). With this in mind, the entire production relies on the action scenes it transitions between being spectacular enough to make you not care about what comes between. This is where Odd Couple truly succeeds.
With its focus on the disputes between the sword and spear disciplines as well as the frankly ingenious conceit of both Hung and Liu playing respective master and student, this is an embarrassment of riches in terms of choreography. Especially with a scene-stealing appearance by Ka-Yan Leung as a villain who feels wronged by both the Kings of the Spear and Sword who brings both menace, and a tangible physical threat to his scenes. What works so well is that despite the (possibly self-awarded) titles of King of the Sword/Spear, both performances are designed to feel evenly matched to each other without being completely infallible. It is hard to describe some of the joy of watching two masters of martial arts showing the peak of their crafts without spoiling some of the joy of seeing it with fresh eyes. But suffice to say, for as long as the film is in motion, it may as well be the best film of all time.
But this is also meant to be a comedy and while humour is incredibly subjective, when it allows itself to act as a slapstick comedy, it excels and delights, but verbally, it can often fall flat (unlike when it wants its character to fall as part of a pratfall when it definitely succeeds). As previously mentioned though, this is not the sort of film you need to watch for the plot and it doesn’t seem to care if you remember this after you’ve finished watching, because when you’ve got martial arts displays like these, who needs a story to go with it?
This Eureka Classics release is a beautiful pack with the restored video and audio (both original and dubbed English) being crisp and practically flawless. I would recommend for your first time at least, going for the subtitled original audio track as the dub has a tendency to reduce the language in a desire to make it more accessible. The supporting extras aren’t perhaps as comprehensive as some of the greatest hits of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series but the commentary tracks and interviews present are certainly illuminating around both the production and the film’s place in the wider martial arts canon.
It’s a great package of a great film that had this critic beaming with joy from beginning to end. And despite being a comedy, it never treats the martial arts elements as a joke, but doesn’t forget that they can be serious displays of prowess but still very fun to watch. There is a joy in just watching people do what they’re best at. What more could you ask for?
Odd Couple is available now via Eureka home video