Review By: Bill Graham
KUNG FU KILLER, which may or may not arrive for your viewing pleasure under the title Kung Fu Jungle, is the latest martial arts vehicle for perpetual action star Donnie Yen. The film revolves around Yen’s character Hahou Mo who is stuck in prison for murder when a sudden string of crimes attracts his attention. Someone is knocking off martial arts masters and Mo feels like he knows how to help the investigation led by Detective Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Young). A few twists are thrown in to keep Killer a bit different from most of the standard fare in this type of action romp. The first is that the killer, Fung Yu-Sau (Baoqiang Wang), has a disability leading to a limp: one leg is shorter than the other, requiring a special boot to be worn. The second is that Fung is tracking down masters of different combat techniques and fighting them in one-on-one matches to the death. Sure, a police procedural is also wrapped into the fold but much of the plotting and story that doesn’t directly involve fighting is just plain silly, confusing, or both.
What we have here is a film that relies on the martial arts sequences over anything else. The sad part is that while a lot of Chinese action cinema made a splash recently for the use of wire-fu and interesting combat set pieces, most of that falls flat here in a gritty urban landscape. Yen is known for being an incredible on-screen talent and he doesn’t need the use of CGI nor wires to show you something spectacular. Thankfully director Teddy Chan doesn’t overuse CGI nor wires, but at times it does crop up and is distracting more than anything. One thing Chan does smartly rely on is the fact that Fung is tracking down and fighting people that have individual specialties.
The result is that Fung fights them in their preferred style. If he fights a grappler, he fights using grappling techniques, mixing up the way the combat flows and looks. At times Chan even makes an effort to utilize interesting setting for fights. But the setup and the execution aren’t always on the same page as sometimes the room geometry doesn’t make any sense or CGI elements come into play in sloppy, haphazard ways. People will crash into objects or barriers and a sudden camera movement will find them in a different area altogether.
As for the setup, it revolves around good-guy martial arts master Mo, who has racked up good behavior rewards while serving jail time for the last three years. Why he is in jail is a bit confusing and isn’t well explained, but he turned himself in for murder and seems to be on good terms with the jailmen and law enforcement in general. Once he has the attention of Detective Luk after correctly predicting the next murdered martial artist he negotiates his freedom in exchange for his help. There’s also a romance subplot that gets tied in with another woman and yet somehow you can never tell if they’re just friends or incredibly formal and old-school with each other.
For those not familiar with Yen, he is often accused of playing the same type of character: one with a high moral attribute that is usually the good guy while he flashes his brilliant smile. He’s one of the few people I can recall that will smile while he kicks, punches, and beats on people. In a way it reminds me of the American football player Hines Ward who was known for his smile on the field of play. This role is no different for Yen, who again turns in brilliant martial arts work while rocking his famous grin. Chan knows that Yen is the draw, which is why he leads the film off with a major action set piece where he fights through 17 prisoners and also comes in for the finale that seems to last for ages.
There is a thankful brutality to the fights that leave people bruised and bloody. And for all the mistakes Chan makes throughout, the finale is quite a show. There’s a uniqueness to the way Fung and Mo interact with the environment in addition to the use of extremely long pieces of bamboo they wield like ordinary broomsticks. If one were to make a supercut of all the fights the film might be entirely recommendable. But as it stands, Kung Fu Killer (or Jungle) is just too silly to stand on its own merits unless you’re desperate for some stylized mixed-bag action or a Donnie Yen superfan. Chinese martial arts cinema has come a long way but this feels more like a sidestep than anything.
*Seen at the 2015 DIFF (Dallas International Film Festival)*
Country: Hong Kong, 100 minutes
Director: Teddy Chan
Cast: Donnie Yen, Charlie Yeung, Baoqiang Wang, Bing Bai
Screenwriters: Teddy Chan, Ho Leung Lau, Tin Shu Mak
Producers: Catherine Hun, Ning Song, Alex Tong
Cinematographer: Wing-Hang Wong
Executive Producer: Alvin Chow, Nga-Bok Lei, Xiaoming Yan
Editor: Ka-Fai Cheung, Derek Hui
Music: Peter Kam