Kung Fu Killer (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Signature Entertainment) Running Time: 100 minutes approx.
With Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Sammo Hung all supposedly hanging up their martial arts boots, it has befallen to Donnie Yen to be the last big name bastion of the genre while we wait for the next generation to break through. Unfortunately at 51 years-old, Yen too is looking forward to a well-earned rest from kicking butt, which will leave a pretty sizeable hole in top tier talent to drive these films forward.
For now though Yen is on top form in Kung Fu Killer as Hahou Mo, a martial arts instructor who turns himself in for the manslaughter of an opponent during a fight. Three years later Mo sees a TV news report on the murder of a retired martial arts instructor. Recognising the victim and the method of his death, Mo strikes a deal with the Inspector Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Yeung), to help track the killer, Fung Yu-Sau (Wang Baoqiang) in exchange for his release from prison.
Originally titled Kung Fu Jungle in Asia (no idea why the change) this film is the big hit Donnie Yen needs after a series of big budget misses including The Monkey King and Iceman. Reuniting with director Teddy Chen – having worked together on 2009’s well received Bodyguards & Assassins – it seems this could be the box office redemption Yen has been looking for.
While hidden under the guise of a modern crime thriller the story is rooted in the classic period Kung Fu flicks from the 70’s and early 80s, in which a malevolent fighter would wipe out the masters of every martial arts school until the hero stands up and defeats him in the name of good Kung Fu. For Fung Yu-Sau thought his motives seem a little muddy as he appears to be avenging his wife’s death from cancer which is hardly Mo’s or anyone else fault. But by using the speciality of each master to kill them, there is something else driving Fung.
Well schooled fans of the genre will get a kick out of the multiple references dotted throughout the film, from posters of well known titles and film heroes such as Bruce Lee seen on walls, to clips of Jackie Chan films shown on TV to the legendary faces popping up in cameo roles. During the end credits every one of them is name checked and recognised for their contributions to the Hong Kong cinema which while a touching tribute, has a slight valedictorian aura about it, especially if the rumours of this being Yen’s swan song are true.
It’s a simple story that drives this film but script writers Lau Ho-leung and Mak Tin-sau have crafted around it a tightly plotted thriller that brings together modern police procedure with classic martial arts motif that bounce of each other surprisingly well. Having a female inspector lead the charge is quite a progressive move for Hong Kong cinema and Inspector Luk’s character is never treated as eye candy nor is she undermined by her male colleagues and subordinates. Luk still plays second fiddle to Mo but her character on the whole is a huge step forward for the genre, bolstered by a solid reciprocal performance by Charlie Yeung, who at 40 years-old can finally leave the window dressing behind.
The nature of Fung’s murderous campaign means we are never very far from a punch up and the beauty of the multi-style concept means no two fights are the same. For Wang Baoqiang this requires him to be fluent in a number of disciplines, and to add to his woes, Fung has a shorter right foot meaning Baoqiang has to fight with a giant boot on one foot! And as if this visual spectacle needed any further embellishment these scraps take place in some unusual places, not limited to on top of a giant model of a human skeleton!
Mo needs to have a reason to fight back beyond defending the pride of martial arts and that is his other half Sinn Ying (Michelle Bai), also martial arts master with her speciality being the sword. Mo doesn’t want Sinn involved in the hunt for Fung, even though she can take care of herself, but Inspector Luk is happy for Sinn to come onboard as she can control Mo when needed. The team begins to gel but as they get closer to catching Fung, a piece of circumstantial evidence implicates Mo, forcing him to reveal his personal agenda for finding Fung.
Donnie Yen will never be mistaken for a great actor but he has improved over the years, the two Ip Man films being the most responsible for nurturing this side of him, and while Mo doesn’t present much of a challenge, Yen does lift him beyond one dimensional. Similarly Wang Baoqiang is either snarling or grinning like a madman but he makes for a dangerous figure before he even throws a punch or a kick.
Yen and Wang tangle a couple of time in short but hard hitting scraps before a staggering finale on a bridge having to dart in and out of the oncoming traffic. A one point they duel with large bamboo staffs, a nod to Yen’s clash with Jet Li in Once Upon A Time In China II, which is something to behold, only to be interrupted by a couple of gloriously dangerous stunts involving two heavy goods trucks which would have been more effective had they not been CGI assisted – not that I am advocating the stars should risk their lives any more than they do for our entertainment of course!
The darker and more violent action adds an extra dimension to Kung Fu Killers to allow it stand above both recent crime thrillers and martial arts films. It’s not an instant classic but it is a much needed return to form for Yen, and if indeed he does bow out after this he does so on a positive note.
5.1 Surround Sound
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black