Two over-the-hill kung fu fighters sitting around a teahouse, waiting for their master to awaken from a 30-year coma, hardly sounds like the stuff of side-splitting comedy. But the pair in question, charismatic ’70s Hong Kong martial-arts legends Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-tai, keep the drollery bubbling nicely in “Gallants,” bestirring their arthritic joints to kick younger, nastier ass. The sudden awakening of their diminutive, dictatorial master, unaware of the passage of time, ups the antics exponentially as Teddy Robin happily steals the show. Unfortunately, without current marquee names, pic may not snare the distribution it deserves.
With their beloved Master Law (Robin) comatose, Dragon (Chen) and Tiger (Leung, “Kung Fu Hustle”) are reduced to massaging the maestro’s limbs and waiting tables in his converted school, now a teahouse. When the eatery becomes the target of a shady real estate development scheme, the duo almost relishes the break in the boredom and the opportunity to confront Master Pong (former gangster and kickboxing champion Chan Wai-man), spokesman for an upscale, compromised version of the martial arts.
Caught in the middle is the pic’s putative young hero, office-boy Cheung (Wong You-nam), a quivering 97-pound weakling and abuse magnet. Sent to the boondocks to work for the real estate goons, he secretly desires to learn kung fu from Tiger, who rescues him from local bullies.
Initial strong-arm tactics result in Pong’s minions dropping Master Law on his head, awakening him from his long snooze. The master then picks up exactly where he left off, carousing and flinging orders while his entourage flutters anxiously around him, feeling obliged to maintain the illusion that no time has passed. In a hilarious, unsentimental literalization of nostalgia as a byproduct of amnesia, Tiger and Dragon must pretend to be unknown amateurs, while the skinny, underdeveloped Cheung is somehow cast as both Dragon and Tiger in the master’s mind. This comedy conceit plays out effortlessly in the hands of the geriatric thesp trio as Law’s resurrection forces Pong to reshape his power play as a martial-arts contest.
Seasoned pros combine with hotshot newcomers behind the camera as well. Hong Kong star Andy Lau exec produced, while Robin, a noted producer and mainstay of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll, also wrote the score. Young helmers Derek Kwok (“Pye Dog,” “The Moss”) and writer-turned-director Clement Cheng pay dynamic homage to the Shaw Brothers tradition without undue slavishness. Longtime action choreographer Yuen Tak eschews both wirework and CGI; the wonder of the excellent kung fu sequences can be attributed to Chen’s and particularly Leung’s miraculous transcendence of age and injury.