Yuen Woo Ping’s TIGER CAGE Trilogy on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory

For many in the west, Yuen Woo-ping gained sudden mainstream prominence with his action choreography work on The Matrix and its sequels, as well as a slew of high-profile early 2000s films like Kill Bill, Kung Fu Hustle, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which capitalized on his new fame.

But the legendary filmmaker had been honing his craft as a director, action and stunt choreographer, fight advisor, and actor for decades, and his Matrix-sparked renaissance wasn’t even his first comeback.

In the late 70s he directed a slew of beloved martial arts classics, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master, and Magnificent Butcher. He continued making films in the early 80s, notably introducing the world to Donnie Yen, but these proved less impactful.

But with the Hong Kong action scene upended by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films, which proved that modern urban action could be just as impactful and profitable as traditional kung fu fare, a reinvigorated Yuen Woo-ping slammed out a trio of action-packed police dramas for Dickson Poon and Sammo Hung’s production company, D&B Films.

Notably, though the three Tiger Cage films are thematically grouped as a trilogy, there’s no narrative connection or continuity between them, other than the thread of being stories about Hong Kong police. They can be watched independently or in any order. As with Leone’s Man with No Name or Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy, some actors even reappear as different characters (most notably Donnie Yen).

And yet, the three films are stylistically quite different from each other.

Tiger Cage (1988)

Things seem to be going pretty well for a successful anti-drug police unit, but in the aftermath of a high profile bust, they are threatened by retaliatory attacks, and a wary Police Inspector (Jacky Cheung) becomes suspicious of corruption and betrayal within their ranks. But when he voices his concerns, he’s framed as the next target.

The film’s tight, mean, and dramatic; it feels like anyone is expendable in service to the story. There’s lots of twists, dummies thrown off buildings (that might sound like a dig but I love it), and a surprisingly potent thread of reignited loyalty from the ashes of betrayal.

This is an absolutely star-studded affair with a huge cast of familiar actors. The primary cast also features Carol Cheng, Simon Yam, and Ng Mn-Tat (even if you you have a hard time placing that name, you probably know him as a recurring Stephen Chow sidekick). The support is also full of notables in both larger and smaller roles, including Donnie Yen, Wang Lung-Wei, and Fung Hak-On.

Tiger Cage 2 (1990)

While Tiger Cage feels pretty hardcore and serious, its followup is a lighter, if bullet riddled, romantic action-comedy.

Off-duty cop Dragon Yau (Donnie Yen) has nothing but spite for his (soon to be ex) wife’s divorce lawyer Mandy (Rosamund Kwan), who feels much the same way about him. But the two are paired up by wrong place/wrong time circumstances, first getting caught in the crossfire of a drug-money gun battle, and then placed at the scene of a murder, becoming the primary suspects.

No sooner are they arrested and handcuffed together than yet another attack ensues, forcing them to flee the crime scene and kicking off a brief Defiant Ones riff, not only fugitives from the law, but also hounded by the actual perpetrator, a vengeful crime boss who thinks they have his money-filled briefcase (Robin Shou).

Eventually joined by a third partner involved in the chase (David Wu), the pair become not only a trio but a love triangle as the two men both fall for Mandy and also try to plan for an ultimate confrontation against their pursuers, featuring some incredible fighting and most iconically a climactic sword battle. It’s the most fun and memorable of the three films, owing not only to the great action but the chemistry and likeability of its stars.

Tiger Cage 3 (1991)

The third film in the cycle is the most melodramatic and tragic, and of the three it’s the one that seems to be most impacted by the style and storytelling of the heroic bloodshed subgenre, with classical narrative elements that recall The Phantom of the Opera and The Count of Monte Cristo.

James, a jealous police detective (Kwok Leung Cheung), reluctantly allows his girlfriend Suki (Sharla Cheung), who is employed by a suspected criminal, to act as a spy for the department. With her intelligence and eye-catching beauty, Suki makes a great informant, easily distracting and manipulating men. Michael Wong also stars as James’ friend and coworker.

But things get too hot, Suki is kidnapped by one of her criminal suitors (Kam-kong Wong), and James is apparently killed in his rescue attempt. Devastated, Suki gives in to her captor.

Burned but alive, a rehabilitated James eventually resurfaces and takes up pursuit, wearing a mask to hide his mutilated face. But Suki now seems comfortably integrated with the criminal enterprise; is she in too deep and taken in by the wealth and power of being the boss’s girl, or still maintaining her cover?

It’s the most classically tragic and melodramatic of the three films, with many characters caught in the crossfire and meeting untimely demises, and no guarantee of a happy ending. There’s definitely a lot of action, including a rooftop brawl of a finale, but in this tale it does seem to take a back seat to the story.

It’s worth noting that the burn makeup effects are a little shoddy and obvious, frequently detaching from James’ face in a way that’s distracting, but this is a pretty small complaint in a largely emotive and engaging film.

The Package

Shout Factory’s Blu-ray edition of The Tiger Cage Collection packages all three films in a shared Blu-ray case housed in a slipbox. Each movie and its respective extras is housed on one of three discs.

Special Features and Extras – Tiger Cage

  • Cantonese and English cuts of the film
  • Audio commentary by critic & author David West
  • “A Tiger’s Tale – Frank Djeng Discusses a Classic Action Trilogy”
  • “An Apex Predator – Actor Vincent Lyn Remembers Tiger Cage”
  • Theatrical Trailer (3:23)
  • English Trailer (4:46)

Special Features and Extras – Tiger Cage 2

  • Hong Kong and Malaysian cuts of the film
  • Audio commentary by critic & author David West
  • “Clawing a Living: Action Choreographer Bill Lui Reflects in Tiger Cage II” (30:06)
  • “Hunting High and Low: Victor Fan on the Golden Age of Hong Kong Action” (18:31)
  • Theatrical Trailer (4:00)

Special Features and Extras – Tiger Cage 3

  • Audio commentary by critic & author David West
  • “A New Wave of Violence: James Mudge on the Hong Kong Heroic Bloodshed Boom” (19:57)
  • “Inventing an Icon – Critic Ricky Baker Discusses the Emergene of the Heroic Bloodshed Term (8:12)
  • Theatrical Trailer (3:48)
  • English Trailer (4:01)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and online image rendering. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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