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March 2015

Kung Fu Killer

cast: Donnie Yen, Wang Baoqiang, Charlie Young, and Michelle Bai

director: Teddy Chen

96 minutes (15) 2014
widescreen ratio 16:9
Signature DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Kung Fu Killer

Years ago, in my humble role as a postman, I delivered mail to a martial arts instructor. On the off chance that I should bump into him, I practised the few phrases of Japanese I knew from X-Men comics. Why I assumed the pretence of a fluency in Japanese would impress a total stranger, I don't know, and why I assumed Japanese should be the medium of commonality rather than say Chinese, I don't know either. In my mind's eye I can still see the housing estate where he lived, I can even see the house, but, with the passage of time, I begin to doubt whether this ever really happened.

Was it all a very vivid dream, brought on by reading too many comics and watching too many martial arts movies? Martial arts movies were how I got into film reviewing, they were something I could watch with the kids. And, time was, it seemed like Jackie Chan was bringing out a new film every other month. One would assume that the martial arts movie, like any other genre, would have experienced its own flood and ebb, but no sooner does it seem to dry up than a new twist is trotted out, a new discipline unearthed as the unique selling point. So, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle, Ong-Bak, Ip Man, The Raid, and their like, pop up every few years and keep the noodle pot simmering. Ever since Bruce Lee (I suppose) made it hip, kung fu, and its derivatives, is the gift to film-makers that keeps on kicking.

I suppose there was a time when fights in films were pretty bog-standard punch-ups, yet even early Bond threw some ju-jitsu shapes, and who can forget Frank Sinatra blocking and chopping in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)? Bruce Lee, of course, kick-started the mythology for western audiences, and speaking of westerns, Kung Fu - the genre mash-up TV series, running (some would say over-running) from 1972 to 1975, turned school playgrounds into killing fields all across the UK. Anyway, the show goes on, and old martial artists never die, they just got cameo roles in Kung Fu Killer.

Kung Fu Killer is also known as Kung Fu Jungle and The Last Of The Best, presumably to avoid confusion with the 2008 TV mini-series starring David Carradine and Darryl Hannah. Mixed martial artist Donnie Yen plays Hahou Mo, a police self-defence instructor who, at the beginning of the film, is sent down for killing an opponent. Police Inspector Luk Yuen-sum (Charlie Young) is called to a homicide where the driver of a luxury sports car has been pummelled to death in a freeway underpass. Hahou Mo sees news footage of the killing while in prison, and asks to speak to Luk to help her with the case, when his request is refused he takes on a newly arrived gangster's 17 henchmen to emphasise his point. When Luk Yuen-sum visits the prison, Hahou Mo tries to explain the sequence of martial arts' disciplines which are a clue to the case, and when his request for release is refused he supplies a list of martial artists who will be the killer's next victims. When one of the names supplied provides the killer's next target Hahou Mo is released under police custody to help track him down.

Kung Fu Killer isn't a detective story with a martial arts twist; we meet the killer Fung Yu-sau (Wang Baoqiang) early on. What few twists there are, Hahou Mo has already met the murderer when he visited him in prison, do not materially alter the narrative. What the film does well is provide a nicely paced action flick, where the fights punctuate the police procedural and thankfully don't go on too long. Motivation is sketchy; why was Hahou Mo so driven as to kill an opponent, why does the film pretend he still has rage issues when those tendencies already seem well under control at the beginning of the film when he is still in prison? What is Fung Yu-sau's motivation? Obviously he wants to be the best, having overcome a disability (which, with respect, takes some swallowing), he is cutting a swathe through the masters of various fighting disciplines with Hahou Mo his ultimate target. Fung Yu-sau's wife is dying of cancer and, when he kills her to end her pain, it may be assumed he hopes Hahou Mo will kill him in turn, but this death-wish seems an ill-match with his desire to be 'number one'. One assumes this level of characterisation wasn't part of the film that the director wanted to make, which is fair enough; as it stands it's an entertaining hour and a half but nothing more.

There are some decent action sequences in the film but nothing outstanding. A roof-top chase through drying bed-sheets is very jolly but a mite derivative, a duel on a giant skeleton is too short to be a classic, and the scene where Fung Yu-sau takes on a movie action hero, on the set of his latest film, is more notable for the way the rest of the cast and crew take off to leave him to his fate. The final battle between Fung Yu-sau and Hahou Mo across a busy freeway is pretty good but, again, nothing special. The film's final shots of Hahou Mo united with his sweetheart Sinn Ying (Michelle Bai), becoming a new dad, and running a martial arts school, unfortunately reminded me of Derek Zoolander and 'The Centre For Kids Who Can't Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too'. Sorry, that says more about me than about this film. A host of martial arts actors have cameos in Kung Fu Killer and there's a nice cast credits sequence at the end to acknowledge them.

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