Review Date: 4/5/13
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Cast: Zhao Wen Zhiou (Chiu Man Cheuk, Vincent Zhao), Zhou Xun, Andy On, Guo Xiaodong, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, cameos by Gordon Liu (Lau Kar Fai, Liu Chia Hui), Leung Ka-Yan, David Carradine, Cung Le
A disappointing attempt to fictionalize the story of Su Can, the alleged founder of drunken boxing. What's even more disappointing is that it features almost none of the magic and kung fu goodness that highlight Yuen Woo Ping's impressive career, making it a sad reminder that the genre is truly dead. Su Can (Zhao Wen Zhiou) is an exemplary general and wushu fighter who decides to retire from battle and raise a family with the lovely Zhou Xun. Unfortunately, his jealous and emotionally scarred adopted brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) vows to ruin Su's life and becomes a master of Five Venom's Fist in order to do so. Left for dead, Zhou Xun and Michelle Yeoh nurse Su back to health, but his kung fu is destroyed. He invents a new fighting form in his head with the aid of an Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and The God Of Wushu (Jay Chou), but his wife thinks he's gone insane and leaves him, setting up the inevitable final confrontation with Yuan. At eighty minutes, this would have been a nice stopping point, but then the film abruptly switches gears to "Chapter 2", which focuses on a broken-hearted Su Can heroically beating up a bunch of dirty Russian wrestlers with drunken boxing. This extended epilogue feels tacked on and so completely different from the first half that I could never quite reconcile it as part of the film.
As a kung fu bio-pic, it commits two cardinal sins: Firstly, the events in the first half are so outrageous and fantastical that they couldn't possibly be grounded in reality, and secondly, Zhao Wen Zhiou is the only trained martial artist in the film who does any fighting. As a result, the kung fu suffers horribly, as the other actors are just going through carefully choreographed and highly edited movements. An excessive amount of loose and floaty wire work also spoils the suspension of disbelief, and there are some scenes where the digital wire removal is incomplete. Are broken and intermittent wires better than visible wires? I personally found it distracting. The overuse of unconvincing CGI elements and environments is also distracting and actually detracts from both the action and drama. On the plus side, the sets and locations are stunningly beautiful and the film looks absolutely fabulous. Zhao Wen Zhiou's performance is quite good, but his fight scenes are unfortunately scaled back to match his opponent's abilities. He's typically a pretty wooden and expressionless actor, but he pulls off some moving moments throughout the film.
While it's exciting to see kung fu veterans Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and Leung Ka-Yan, it's disappointing that they don't get to do anything interesting. Andy On makes a passable villain, and although his physical performance is impressive, he's no match for Zhao Wen Zhiou. Much to my surprise, only Jay Chou seems to be performing at the same level as Zhao, and their various weapons exchanges are nicely executed. Unfortunately, the CGI backdrops ruin the impact of their engagements. David Carradine shows up in a bizarre and pointless cameo as the rotten manager of the Russian wrestlers, in what would be one of his final performances. It's so sad to see that this is what Hong Kong cinema has evolved into. It feels like a failed attempt by Yuen Woo Ping to make a Hollywood styled action movie, much in the same way that "The Man With The Iron Fists" (2012) tried to be a Hong Kong styled kung fu movie. Both films have good intentions, but suffer from misguided execution.