Today, Michelle Yeoh is an international star, but once upon a time she was Michelle Khan, high-kicking heroine of the In the Line of Duty movies and fiancé of millionaire film producer Dickson Poon. Magnificent Warriors was intended to be her last movie before retirement and marriage. It’s a barnstorming, 1930s-set adventure film, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style with Michelle as Ming Ming, a lethal kung fu fighter and air ace running guns across the mountainous desert regions of High China. Local warlords kill her partner, so whip-wielding Ming Ming wipes out their village.
Meanwhile, Japanese troops bully a local lord into letting them build a chemical weapons factory in his town. A freedom fighter codenamed Sky 101 (Derek Yee) is out to stop them, while the Chinese militia send Ming Ming to rescue Lord Youda (Lowell Lo). Sky 101’s messenger pigeon is caught eaten by self-serving rogue Wong (Richard Ng), thus inadvertently embroiling himself in events, as does lady constable - and Youda’s aspiring girlfriend - Chin-chin (Chindy Lau). Hopelessly outnumbered, these reluctant heroes put up a valiant fight against the Japanese army.
Helmed by award winning cinematographer-turned-director David Chung, this big-budget adventure movie has cracking stunts, high-octane action and lavish production values. Its comic book tone emphasises cartoon villainy and daring do over any serious portrait of the Sino-Japanese conflict, but the witty script shows a surprising depth of character amidst the frenetic action. As in a scene where the captive heroes second guess each other’s traumatic past. The central theme involves various self-serving protagonists gradually committing to the Chinese cause. “Why should I get involved?” is a repeated refrain. The key moment being when several characters have a chance to escape, but go back to save Ming Ming.
Michelle Yeoh makes a terrific, cocksure heroine, racing biplanes and motorbikes, fighting opponents three at a time, but there are energetic turns from the entire cast. Derek Yee, today one Hong Kong’s premier art-house auteurs (C’est la vie, Mon Cherie (1993), Protégé (2007)), largely plays straight man to his co-stars, yet proves as dashing and stoic as during his Shaw Bros days, while Chindy Lau is feisty secondary heroine, as hyperactive, lovelorn Chin-chin. Much loved Cantonese comic actor, Richard Ng handles most of the goofy gags, as when he is kicked around like a human pinball. Plus a priceless scene where he feigns death to shoot an enemy in the back.
As orchestrated by veteran Shaw Bros choreographer Tung Wei, there are car chases, aerial dogfights, hordes of tumbling stuntmen set ablaze, shootouts and more fast-paced fight action than you can shake a nunchaku at. In a pleasing twist, the vanquished general is so impressed by their valour, he colludes with the heroes to reach a peaceful resolution. While the film became an enduring classic, Michelle Yeoh’s marriage was not destined to last. A resentful Dickson Poon vowed she would never work again, but didn’t count on his business rival Jackie Chan. Chan cast her in Police Story III: Supercop (1993) and the rest is history.