May 5, 2015
The summer movie season seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. 2015′s blockbustering began on April 3rd, when Furious Seven started fueling its way to a billion dollars. Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this past weekend, and from now on men-in-capes will be throwings fists at green screens from now through August. I’m looking forward to a few of these behemoths, namely Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas, but for the most part I prefer to to retreat to action films more human-scaled during the sweaty months. Which is why Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Killer is my summer movie of the year. Garnering a limited stateside theatrical release from the invaluable Well Go USA, it’s a cleverly conceived Hong Kong fight film in which Donnie Yen is released from prison to track down a serial killer of martial artists, each victim a master of a different fighting discipline. This allows for a relatively uninterrupted series of brawls in a variety of styles, honoring the whole tradition of HK martial arts films. It’s very self-consciously looking back, as it contains a who’s who list of cameos of HK film legends, from stuntman Bruce Law to the founder of Golden Harvest studio Raymond Chow.
In the English-speaking world, direct-to-video (or now, direct-to-VOD) films are the lone remaining source of action with more practical stunts than CG. So I took a chance on Skin Trade solely based on the cast: Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, and Michael Jai White. Lundgren and White are stalwarts of the DTV cinematic universe, while Jaa is the popular Thai daredevil from Ong Bak, The Protector, and, making inroads into Hollywood, a small role in Furious 7. Indifferently directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham on what was undoubtedly a tight budget and tighter schedule, this Thai-Canadian co-production has the feel of many DTV films where all the money went into paying the stars and acquiring explosives, with little left for the actual movie in between kabooms (it is receiving distribution from Magnet, Magnolia’s action imprint). If you skip past the first hour of exploitative sexual trafficking drama there are some formidable fight scenes in Skin Trade that pit the smaller and quicker Jaa against lumbering powerhouse Lundgren and the nimbler giant Jai White. Plus there is the pleasure of Ron Perlman, as the main mobster heavy, chewing into his Serbian accent with brio. But it’s no Kung Fu Killer.
In recent months Donnie Yen has mentioned that Ip Man 3, now in production,may be his last action film. Now fifty-one years old, he is in a retrospective mood, and may be ready to ease the beating his body has been taking since he started as a stunt double in the early 1980s. Kung Fu Killer (aka Kung Fu Jungle) has the feel of a greatest hits routine, and the fight scenes are all killer no filler. Donnie Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and former police instructor who was imprisoned for beating his opponent to death in a duel. In jail he follows the story of a serial murderer who seems to be targeting fellow martial artists and slaying them with their own specialty: whether it’s strikes, kicks, weapons or grappling. Hahou detects a pattern in the killer’s targets, and begs Detective Luk Yuen Sum (Charlie Yeung) to release him to help the investigation. She does, of course, and together they track down Fung Yu-Sau (Wang Baoqiang), driven mad by his wife’s sickness. One of Fung’s legs is shorter than the other, and through brutal training has overcome his physical limitations to outfight the greatest kung fu masters in the country. Wang nearly limps away with the movie in a sneeringly emotive performance that reminded me of Lon Chaney in The Penalty.
The story is a delivery system for the fights, and they are all spectacular down to the slightest detail. When you get to a close-up of Yen or Wang’s knuckles, they are bruised black-and-blue. Whether this is makeup or achieved the hard way is irrelevant, but they are established in a world where flesh is vulnerable, and that is enough to heighten the stakes of each battle. To get the attention of the prison guards, Hahou initiates a brawl against seventeen inmates. Against such a large group, Yen employs the Chuy Li Fut martial art, which involves a whipping of the upper body. According to the infallible Wikipedia, Bruce Lee said it was “the most effective system that I’ve seen for fighting more than one person.” Teddy Chen has a penchant for using too many swooping master shots that blur the action, but when he gets closer to the fight itself each impact registers with clarity.
Fung Yu-Sau’s second murder is against the kicking master (Shi Yanneng), which occurs atop a massive art installation of a fictional dinosaur. This quick imaginative bout starts on top of the animal’s spine and travels through its ribcage before it’s neck snapping conclusion. For the grappling expert (Kang Yu) fight, you see the Eagle Claw style of gripping and attacking pressure points, which here occurs in a modern apartment, smashing through aquariums and windows. There is a lot of jockeying for hand position here, and Chen does a good job of matching the close-ups of the grips with the general flow of the action as Fung eventually fells another master. Fung’s fight against the weapons master (Louis Fan) occurs on a movie set as they are preparing a motorcycle stunt. Fung arrives with a saber, stabs an extra through the shoulder, and the director (Joe Cheung, a character actor from In the Mood For Love and dozens of others) skedaddles. This leads to a beautifully orchestrated fencing duel goosed by wirework by exaggerate impacts.
The film uses CG too much for purists, especially in the awesome final showdown between Hahou and Fung, which takes place on a highway at night, as the duo spars with bamboo reeds in between rolling under semi-trucks. I was too wrapped up in the physical feats to ding it too much for lower rent CG. The Hong Kong studios just don’t have the money to get the processing power of Hollywood FX outfits, but I’ll take Donnie Yen with some CG blood spurts if it saves him from injury and on my screen.