It’s probably not a good thing that the only Jet Li movies I’d seen prior to this film are his most American ones – Lethal Weapon 4, Unleashed, The Mummy 3 and The Expendables, so his notoriety as a master of martial arts has been more than a little lost on me, as though he gets to show his stuff in most of these films, they aren’t built around him and he is far from the star. There are several other Li films on the List, including Hero and Enter the Dragon, and I hope that they aren’t as much of a mess as this one.
Li plays Master Wong Fei-Hung, who is put in charge of organising the local non-military men into a local militia to defend China if they are attacked whilst the army is busy elsewhere. This initial premise is soon skipped to see Wong and his rag-tag band of one-note misfits – the fat one, the big-toothed one – become involved in a hectic plot involving a mob-run protection racket and the westernisation of China, as the English influence is felt through weaponry, religion, clothing and cutlery.
The film’s saving graces are the cast and the action. Li proves himself as the martial arts legend he is regarded as, and the various fighting scenes are, mostly, memorable and entertaining. One near the end, a one-on-one fought almost entirely on long, weak ladders, is particularly good, and has a nice payoff too. The moment with Li and the bullet took it a bit far for me, as did the occasional uses of wire-fu to allow characters to jump an awful lot further than they should. These artists are capable of great things with their limbs alone, so whenever stage effects are used to enhance them I’m always taken out of the film, as it shows the stars as mere mortals like the rest of us.
There is far more comedy here than I was expecting too, on an almost farcical level, and many times the scenes seem to be set-up for a fight or a larger, recurring joke that never happens. A scene where a character finds himself with an arm and a leg needlessly plastered could have led to a fight scenes where the casts were used both as his hindrance and advantage, but alas he just runs off and it’s never mentioned again. Similarly, a photograph posing culminating in a burst of flame that ends up roasting a pet bird could have been used later to vanquish an attacker with an unexpected fireball, but again no.
The moments of culture clash comedy – Wong encountering a fork – are nice, but there isn’t much here that’s new, and by the end (the film is well over 2 hours) even the action has gotten almost boring.
Choose life 5/10
I haven't seen Once Upon a Time in China yet (it's in my queue), but I have seen Hero. I highly recommend the film. I really is the pinnacle of the high class martial arts movies. I wrote about it here, if you are interested: http://tipsfromchip.blogspot.com/2012/04/movie-hero-2002.html
I liked your review. The film sounds familiar, so I think I may have half-watched it at some point, but I'm definitely looking to forward to seeing it, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, again.