Dragon From Russia (1990)

Reviewed by Karlos
February 16, 2015


Samuel Hui Koon-Kit • Maggie Cheung • Nina Li Chi • Carrie Ng Ka-Lai • Rachel Lee Lai-Chun • Dean Shek • Yuen Tak • Yuen Wah
Clarence Ford
Yuen Tak
Cantonese audio, English subtitled, anamorphic widescreen, remastered Region 2, UK Hong Kong Legends DVD

Based loosely on the ’80s manga CRYING FREEMAN, DRAGON FROM RUSSIA was made during a brief era of Hong Kong films milking popular Japanese properties for all their worth, both legitimately (films like WICKED CITY, STORY OF RICKY) and not so (here, GAMEBOY KIDS, FUTURE COPS, to name a few).

Sam Hui in assassin mode

Sam Hui, of the Hui brothers, is Yao Long, a happy go lucky guy living in Russia (real location work here – a rarity for HK films at this time) with his lady May Yip (Maggie Cheung, having to act dumb), whose father (Dean Shek), was an ex-assassin for the “800 Dragons”. His old employer, Master (Yuen Tak), comes a-calling and wanting vengeance, culminating in Hui having his memory wiped and being abducted into the “800 Dragons” (although we only ever see, like, four of them. Maybe the rest were on strike, or sick or something), an elite assassination squad who all dress like Kato. Taken to a hiding place, Yao is tortured (in a light-hearted way), wound up by Lolletta Li’s charms, acupuncture sessions, blood-letting, and “feet for hands” training, and eventually turned loose to kill. But it’s only a matter of time before old memories return, and with them a desire to escape…

Nina Chi-Li as a dangerous nun

Using just enough of the source material to make it clear it’s Crying Freeman that’s being ripped off here, whilst simultaneously, just different enough so as not to get sued (a skill the Hong Kong film industry would often utilize to almost admiral effect), DRAGON FROM RUSSIA is very much a film of its time. Part rip-off of the original manga, part standard action plot, with a healthy dose of what was trendy at the time in HK films (here it was “new wave” – fantastical fights via wire-work, moody lighting, with a slight leaning towards the supernatural at times). The resulting story is still thin, all over the place and riddled with plot holes, but with the action, Director Clarence Fok (NAKED KILLER, 1992) goes all out. We get nunchaku fights, swordplay, hand to hand (Hui is extensively doubled here – he was around 40 at the time [old!] – but it’s very well handled), gun-play, explosions, car and bike chases. Action wise, it delivers the way that the best of the late ’80s/early ’90s HK action cinema does.

Yuen Tak, pulling triple duty as the film’s Action Director, plus playing both Yao Long’s handler Teddy Wong and the fantastically OTT villain, is perhaps the real star here. And why wasn’t this guy a star? A real puzzler. Check out his turn in the excellent Shaw Brothers flick THE MASTER (1980), if you need further convincing.

Sam Hui practices his nunchaku skills

Hui was seen as an odd choice at the time, but he’s solid and clearly having fun. There are a couple of references to Bruce Lee (he and Hui were apparently good pals), and Hui looks the part as well as sounds it, using Bruce’s patented “cat cries” at times. It should be embarrassing, but Hui pulls it off. He always had an easy going charisma, and it’s a shame that his stab at being an action hero never really happened for him.

Ultimately, DRAGON FROM RUSSIA is better than the earlier adapta-rip-off of Freeman, Philip Ko’s KILLER’S ROMANCE (1989), which starred Simon Yam and, coincidentally, also had scenes filmed in foreign lands; in this case, foggy London Town, guv’nor. But it’s surpassed by 1995’s Christophe Gans/Marc Dacascos version, CRYING FREEMAN, which is much more loyal to the source material.

Not quite essential viewing, perhaps, but huge fun and a great taste of what HK action cinema was all about back in its golden days (as of writing, the film’s 25 years old now – shocking!).

Version watched: Cantonese audio, English subtitled, anamorphic widescreen, remastered Region 2, UK Hong Kong Legends DVD – as part of the Manga in Motion box set (w/ STORY OF RICKY and CITY HUNTER). This is the best version of the film, and also the cheapest. My copy was so cheap it was practically free, man. See what I did there?

NOTE: The seminal ’90s book, The Essential Guide To Hong Kong Movies, claimed there was a “sequel” of sorts called LAND OF DREAMS, made up of a re-edit of the film. I’ve never found any trace of this existing – maybe it was mooted back in the day, but never came to be?