The sort-of real life story of Ma Wing Jing, a wholesome country boy with stunning fighting skills who comes to Shanghai to escape poverty, only to end up befriending a charismatic but shady mob boss and losing his soul in the process, has already been the subject of two high-profile films, Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung and Corey Yuen’s masterpiece, Hero. Though that kind of half-folk, half-historical tale is bound to reappear on film every two decades, one would not expect it to be, as Once Upon in Shanghai is, scripted and produced by gargantuan and insanely prolific money-grabber Wong Jing, while being directed by edgy, often pretentious arthouse darling Wong Ching Po. And yet here it is, starring young upstart Philip Ng in the Ma Wing Jing role and the underrated Andy On as the mob boss, with prestigious action directing by Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung Yan, and a sturdy supporting cast of legends : Sammo Hung as the benevolent master of the community Ma Wing Jing moves into, as well as Yuen Cheung Yan, Fung Hak On and Chen Kuan Tai as a trio of rival mobsters called the Axe Fraternity.

This is the simplest, most straightforward telling of the tale yet. Ma Wing Jing is introduced standing up to bullies on the boat to Shanghai. That boy scout earnestness and courage doesn’t waver throughout the film. In the previous films based on that story, Ma was drawn into the mobster lifestyle and almost lost his soul ; none of that here. However, the loss of darked shades in Ma Wing Jing is compensated in the way his relationship to mob boss Long Qi (Andy On) is portrayed. Long Qi is first shown coldly slaying a night club owner ; he is said to have once been a hopeful country boy like Ma, and to have quickly risen in the ranks of the mob by demonstrating extreme ruthlessness and an almost legendary fighting ability. But after meeting and befriending Ma (whose upright honesty amuses him to no end), the mob boss softens, almost reconnecting with his inner naïve country boy in a series of playful montages that see him and Ma sparring, dancing, jumping around and eating hot dogs while marvelling at how “hot and salty” they are (we’re not kidding, it’s all there). There’s great chemistry between Philip Ng and Andy On, much more in fact than between Ng and Michelle Hu as a drab, naggy, altogether unappealing love interest. Shades of Chang Cheh’s classic bloody bromances here.

After that the story quickly devolves into a standard turf war plot, with the Axe Fraternity plotting with the dastardly Japanese in order to take back control of Shanghai from Long Qi. Wong Jing’s simplistic writing and crowd-pleasing proclivities however do not as expected collide with the arthouse, often pretentious leanings of Wong Ching Po. On the contrary, they complement each other in an oddly compelling, often unwittingly funny way. Even the pared-down sets with precious few extras populating them are a good meeting point for Wong Jing’s penny-pinching and Wong Ching Po’s clean and polished aesthetic. The film is shot in a near monochrome (a lot of shots are quite gorgeous), with only faint traces of colour, like Ma’s green jade bracelet, a gift from his mother with a central pearl that in a nice and stylish touch, tinkles anytime he punches someone. The fighting, while superbly choreographed, is shot with extreme undercranking often followed by momentous slow-motion. It is a style that annoys us more often than not, but here works fairly well, as Wong Ching Po works in quite a few pleasing tracking shots, even though they’re mostly fake (the camera often pans behind a pillar or a crate, alowwing for an unseen cut). Ng and On are formidable martial artists whose fights against each other click in a very special way. Here’s hoping they get many more opportunities to spar onscreen. But the show-stopper here is a vengeful swordfight where Ma takes on many opponents at once among a forest of stone pillars.

This is Philip Ng’s first leading role : he fares impressively in the fights, and while he isn’t exactly a tornado of charisma, and comes off as a bit weak in drama, he has a welcome and endearing ability to turn on the goofy, such as in a scene where he sings a hilariously drunken and out of pitch love song to Michelle Hu. Andy On, often typecast as sullen henchmen, is a formidable and stylish presence here, and manages to sell even the more ridiculous lines his character is saddled with ; he keeps for instance, comparing himself to his pet tiger : “we’re both wild beasts” he intones. But of course you are. Sammo Hung is underused both as a dramatic actor (his character just stands on the sidelines with some sort of dark past barely hinted at) and as a fighter. Still, his presence, like that of old pros Chen Kuan Tai, Yuen Cheung Yan and Fung Hak On (who all get in, albeit briefly, on the action) serves as a nostalgic booster to a likeable but simplistic and muddled film.

Long Story Short : A muddled but endearing combination of Wong Ching Po’s arthouse pretentiousness and Wong Jing’s penny-pinching, crowd-pleasing simplicity. ***1/2

ANGEL WARRIORS (2013) review


A stunningly atrocious concoction from the brilliant mind who gave us Kung Fu Hip-hop, Angel Warriors is unfortunately less laugh-out-loud ridiculous than its plot synopsis might led you to expect. Our heroes, as an ugly anime introduction makes it clear, are a group of five stunning women, all modern adventurers thirsting for new experiences : one is a company CEO (Yu Nan), one is an archeologist/polyglot, one is a wildlife protectionist, one is a dancer and a martial artist, and the last one is, we kid you not, the owner of an online shop for outdoors clothing. Real screenwriting gold right there. Their latest adventure is a trek inside the Kana Jungle, home of the Tiger tribe. Their guide is Sen (Shi Yanneng) a member of that tribe who doubles as the pidgin-English narrator of the film, bragging about how he’s going to marry soon and bringing the audience up to date anytime (that is, quite often) it is unclear what’s happening onscreen. Also joining the girls are Wang (Collin Chou), a military friend of Yu Nan’s late brother, and a National Geographic team headed by Dennis (Andy On). But soon it transpires that it is not actually a National Geographic team, but a mercenary outfit on a search for the Tiger tribe’s precious jewels. All hell breaks loose as the girls and the mercenaries part ways and are both hunted down by the tribe.

The film has a fairly simple outline and progression : it begins as some kind of nightmarish screech-fest as the girls are shown partying in Pattaya Beach, and starting their trek. Then for some mild tension in the jungle as true motives slowly unravel and we get a few shots of snakes and tigers. And finally, a half-hour barrage of deadening fights and listless drama, the former edited out of any coherence or fluidity and shot in cheesy low angles and the latter calling to flashbacks of people screaming “noooooo!” in slow-motion. At least it does not get too boring, but still there’s a measure of heartache to seeing some of the talent this film undeservedly attracted. Among the girls only Yu Nan has presence and can act, the other four (yes, including the online seller of outdoors clothing) are completely interchangeable, and uniformly annoying. Yu herself, an actress worthy of MUCH better films, is simply dialed-down, though looking game for the silliness at hand. Next to the girls, Collin Chou is a dignified relief, though fitted for much of the film with a hilariously stupid wig. Then Andy On comes in and delights us with some choice alternation of Chinese and English, bringing to mind the esteemed work of Michael Wong in that bilingual field. And Shi Yanneng looks almost as if he was drugged silly before every one of his scenes. Which might be the only way to enjoy Angel Warriors.

Long Story Short : Unbelievably stupid and cheesy, Angel Warriors is barely held together by a few talented actors who deserve much better. *

KUNG FU JUNGLE (2014) review

Kungfu Jungle Official Poster Ever since his excellent turn in Peter Chan’s superb Wu Xia in 2011, martial arts spearhead Donnie Yen’s career had been a bit underwhelming, with films either overdosing on special effects (The Monkey King), lacking in any kind of script to tie the amazing fight scenes together (Special ID), getting lost in juvenile comedy (The Iceman 3D) or worse, casting him as a romantic leading man named ‘Cool Sir’ (Together). Kung Fu Jungle, as I’m happy to report, is a definite step up in quality. Donnie is Hahou Mo, a martial arts master who is first seen surrendering himself to the police after killing another master (a barely glimpsed Bey Logan). Three years later he’s peacefully nearing the end of his sentence but a TV report of the murder of a Kung Fu master sends him in a frenzy to contract the inspector in charge of the investigation (Charlie Yeung). He understands the motives of the killer, a demented fighter (Wang Baoqiang) who overcame a leg defect and is challenging all the greatest masters, to the death. But when Hahou Mo is allowed to get out of prison and assist the inspector, it becomes obvious that he has a hidden agenda, part of which involves his girlfriend (Michelle Bai Bing).

There are two sides to Teddy Chen’s Kung Fu Jungle, and while they compliment and support each other well, they don’t fare equally. First it’s an investigation, the hunt for a serial killer. It borrows, as countless films have before, from Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (just as Clarice Starling needs a jailed serial killer to help her find another, Charlie Yeung’s character here needs a jailed martial arts master to stop another) and David Fincher’s Seven (each new victim embodies a concept : cardinal sins in Seven, martial arts techniques in Jungle). The investigation is thus abit on the derivative side, and while it’s serviceable, it’s also rather simplistic : clues and key testimonies are dispensed in an efficient but pedestrian way, with no real intricacy. Thankfully however, Teddy Chen directs with a firm hand and a good sense of atmosphere, ably aided by legendary director of photography Horace Wong (John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled, among other not-too-shabby credentials). There’s also a lot of urgency thanks to the brutal and escalating series of fights. Which leads us to the most expectedly successful aspect of Kung Fu Jungle : the fighting.

For much of the film the fights are short but sweet as Wang Baoqiang’s psychotic fighter is seen challenging martial arts masters who generally put up a quick but brutal and impressive fight. Shi Yanneng displays his flawless powerful kicking, the ever excellent Fan Siu Wong has a lightning fast swordfight, while Donnie Yen protégé Yu Kang does wonders in a fight centered on grappling. Donnie himself has one of his patented ‘one against many’ brawls against a gang of inmates led by the legendary Meng Hoi (and it’s so good to see him again, if only for a cameo), but doesn’t really get in on the action until an absolutely stunning set piece on Lantau Island, when the plot reaches its boiling point and the police, Donnie Yen and Wang Baoqiang chase and fight each other on boats and stilt houses. It’s a marvel of action directing but still only an appetizer for a final fight that earns its place among the very best of Donnie Yen’s fights as an actor and choreographer. A gruelling, protracted, relentlessly brutal assault of kicking, boxing, grappling and staff-fighting on the motorway, among and under (!) cars and trucks speeding by, that proves once again that Yen is a unique and masterful action director, especially if assisted as he is here by other luminaries like Tung Wai and Yuen Bun. Though it must be noted the actual lead fighter here is Wang Baoqiang, who takes parts in almost all the fights and shows impressive abilities, especially after his hugely disappointing match-up with Yen in The Iceman 3D.

As an actor, Donnie Yen plays his character with both Ip-Man style earnestness and a dash of his ‘end-justifies-the-means’ cop in Flashpoint. That is to say he doesn’t stretch himself, but plays to his strengths and gives a very likeable performance. As his girlfriend, Michelle Bai Bing looks set to be merely furniture, until in a stunning turn of events she whips out her swords and goes toe-to-toe with the killer. The latter is lent a a rubber-faced, manic energy by Wang Baoqiang, who borders on annoying at times, but at least makes his character a formidable, frightening foe. Charlie Yeung and Alex Fong as her superior officer don’t get much to do besides look serious and stare at monitors. But look out, because almost every walk-on role or extra in this film is actually a cameo by various legends and luminaries of Hong Kong action cinema (hell, even look at the TV’s in the film, the films they show are always significant). It’s hard to recognize them all because some are behind-the-scenes talent whose face we’ve rarely seen, but a stunning and truly heart-warming end titles sequence set to the traditional (and omnipresent in martial arts cinema) folk song “The Daring General” reveals every one of those cameos (Hey, the lowly communications officer is legendary director Kirk Wong ! Oh look, that random truck driver was the master of car stunt driving Bruce Law ! And so on, there’s many of these and we dare not reveal one more) and reads as a dedication to these generous daredevils and creative forces of nature of the fading but ultimately immortal genre of Hong Kong action cinema.

Long Story Short : A derivative investigation powered up by strong atmosphere and a truly impressive and escalating series of stunningly choreographed and directed fights. Donnie’s best film since Wu Xia for sure, but most of all a love letter to Hong Kong action cinema. ****

MAN WANTED (1995) short review

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Lok (Simon Yam) has been working for two years as an undercover cop, gaining the trust and friendship of drug lord Feng (Yu Rongguang). When the time comes to arrest him, Lok reluctantly reveals his true identity to him, but the arrest goes awry and Feng is presumed dead after his flaming car falls into the sea. Shaken by conflicting feelings of duty and remorse, Lok decides to support Feng’s girlfriend Yung (Christy Chung), but slowly falls in love with her. A year later Feng reappears, asking for Lok’s help on one more job, for old times’ sake. But his real intention is to get revenge… A relatively small film by Benny Chan’s standards, Man Wanted nevertheless benefits from the director’s usual impressive flair for action, and while the story is really nothing new, the chemistry shared by Simon Yam and Yu Rongguang (the latter being particularly excellent here) ensures the film never bores. It is however frequently weighed down by the heavy-handed romantic subplot, despite Christy Chung’s good performance, miles away from her overacting in Red Wolf the same year. ***

LEGACY OF RAGE (1986) review

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In the middle of the 1980’s, Brandon “son of Bruce” Lee was looking to get into the business of film, though more as a straight dramatic actor than an action star. He was trying to make a name for himself outside of his father’s long-reaching shadow, but naturally producers were mostly interested in having him take up that mantle and he was quickly offered action films both in America and Hong Kong. In his tragically short career, Ronny Yu’s Legacy of Rage was Brandon Lee’s first leading role as wellas the only film he made in Hong Kong. The film was a success (though precise box office figures are hard to find) and netted him a Hong Kong Film Awards nomination as Best New Peformer. Despite that, Lee decided to pursue a career mostly in the United States, where he shot a few solid actioners before dying at the tragically young age of 28 on the set of The Crow.

In Legacy of Rage Brandon Lee plays a simple bartender whose friend (Michael Wong) pines for his girlfriend (Regina Kent) as well as for the respect of his Triad boss father (Michael Chan Wai Man). He sees the opportunity to get both in one fell swoop, by murdering a enemy of his father and having Lee framed for it. The plan works and Lee is sent to prison, leaving Wong free to prey on his girlfriend and rise through the Triad ranks. When Lee finally gets out of prison it’s payback time, though things are not that simple. His girlfriend is now married to an rich old man and has a son which may or may not be his, while Wong is now a Triad boss himself.

This is a straightforward action thriller that plays in an entirely predictable but entertaining way, though it suffers from an imbalance between the set-up and the pay-off : basically the film takes an hour to make its rather standard set of characters and situations reach boiling point, before erupting into a very enjoyable, well-staged but painfully short action climax. The action is expertly handled by Meng Hoi (who also plays a lovable fellow convict who assists Lee in his vengeance) and places an emphasis on car chases (there’s impressive car mayhem on display) and shootouts, with only a short alley fight against Bolo Yeung and his men showcasing Brandon Lee’s lightning fast moves. Lee himself comes off as a charismatic, charming actor, with an infinitely more likeable presence than his father. While Rapid Fire would provide a more well-rounded showcase of his talents a few years later, Legacy of Rage was nevertheless a fairly auspicious debut for the tragically still-born star.

Long Story Short : An unremarkable but enjoyable action drama, Legacy of Rage is a passable introduction to the considerable talents of Brandon Lee. **1/2

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV (1993) short review


In 1993, Wu Shu champion Vincent Zhao had the uneasy task of replacing Jet Li as the iconic Wong Fei Hung in a fourth installment of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, following a highly successful trilogy of films. Once Upon A Time In China IV (henceforth Ouatic IV) is not actually directed by Tsui Hark, but by Yuen Bun, who had choreographed the action in the third film. The film is on a smaller scale, and its story, while still musing on themes of national pride and foreign influence, is both more anecdotal and a rehash of the second film’s plot (with the ‘Red Lantern’ sect replacing the ‘White Lotus’ sect). Zhao is an adequate replacement : he’s not as charismatic as Jet Li, but his martial arts ability and grace doesn’t suffer by comparison. The problem is that the film features drawn-out scenes of lion-dancing, a venerable tradition that must be stunning in real life, but tends to bore this writer on screen, and despite the stunning design of some of those parade ornaments, is a weak substitute for actual fight scenes, which are too scarce here. Elsewhere, Jean Wang provides a fine replacement for Rosamund Kwan’s absent Aunt Yee, and Xiong Xin Xin is close to stealing the film away from Zhao with his humorous performance (complemented of course by his awe-inspiring kicks). But like the former film, Ouatic IV lacks a proper villain, with Chin Kar-Lok and Billy Chow forming a striking but grossly underused duo of baddies. An entertaining but forgettable installment. **1/2

THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978) review


While he didn’t achieve the same status as fellow directors Chang Cheh, Yuan Chu or Liu Chia-Liang within the Shaw Brothers roster of talent, Sun Chung has nevertheless given the legendary Hong Kong film studio some of its most original and/or striking classics. From his trailblazing use of steadycam to film martial arts fights in The Kung Fu Instructor, to the unhinged weirdness of Human Lanterns, Sun left an unmistakable though unsung mark in the Shaw catalogue. The Avenging Eagle might just be his best achievement. It follows Chi Min-Sing (Ti Lung), who is part of a brotherhood of assassins known as the Eagles, all raised by and obeying to the cruel Yue Xi-Hong (Ku Feng), who sends them on missions to murder his enemies. When Chi is gravely wounded in one of these missions, he is taken in by a generous man, whose daughter he falls in love with. She urges him to not kill anymore and become a good man, but the pressure from Yue and the Eagles proves too strong : soon Chi is back in the murdering business, and he can’t stop the man who saved him and the woman he loves from being assassinated by his ‘brothers’. But after having committed the unthinkable by murdering a pregnant woman on his master’s order, Chi finally decides to run away from the Eagles and look for the murdered woman’s husband to atone for his crime. During his escape he meets a nameless man (Alexander Fu-Sheng), who decides to help him, seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. But it is soon discovered he has hidden motives, and unsuspected fighting abilities…

The Avenging Eagle tells a fairly simple story of betrayal, revenge and the awakening to Good, but tells it in a compact, hard-hitting way that instantly raises the film above many Shaw Brothers films that get bogged down in too many twists and turns. The film starts in the middle of the narrative, and lets the audience catch up on the story through a series of brisk flashbacks that peel off the plot’s layers in an engaging way. This is a streamlined, 86-minute film where every minute counts. The fights are abundant and masterfully edited, but never grow repetitive, thanks to the use of inventive weaponry like the forearm blades wielded by Fu Sheng or the steel claws Ku Feng uses in the stunning final fight. Sun Chung didn’t get the Shaw Brothers’ biggest budgets, but he always made the most of what he got, and The Avenging Eagle looks stunning with its perfectly-framed forest settings and the striking set design of the Eagles’ headquarters.

But one of the film’s key strengths is the cast. Alexander Fu Sheng had an uncanny ability to go from supremely goofy to lean and deadly, and that ability is put to great use here. When we first meet him it looks like he’s going to be Ti Lung’s goofy sidekick ; then we see flashes of his lethal fighting style, and cracks start to appear in his amiable exterior. The gradual reveal of his true identity and motivations is perfectly carried out by the late star. Ku Feng is a memorable villain and never lets his awesome facial hair out-act him ; no small feat. But the film belongs to Ti Lung. Chi as a character is all shades of grey ; he’s a deadly assassin who’s only ever known the cold act of killing, and when his eyes are opened and he experiences the warmth of love, his awakening is a gradual one, not some kind of overnight change for good. Even after swearing to never kill again, he murders a pregnant woman out of sheepish obedience to his master ; even after choosing to do good, glints of his old self show up : when Fu Sheng rescues him in the desert in the beginning of the film, he reciprocates by stealing his horse and water. When born and raised a murdering outlaw, you don’t just turn it off like that. All this is superbly conveyed by Ti Lung in what is one of the best performances in his long and legendary career, not to mention his fighting performance with the three-section staff he wields in the film is quite impressive. Ti’s eventual team-up with Fu Sheng is one of the most charismatic duos in the Shaw Brothers catalogue. The cast for the rest of the Eagles is populated with such distinguished martial arts supporting players as Wang Lung Mei, Dick Wei, Eddy Ko Hung and Yuen Bun, which means every fight is a delight. A remake of this film is in the plans : it has its work cut out for itself to match the star wattage, hard-hitting storytelling and visual mastery The Avenging Eagle displays.

Long Story Short : One of the true gems of the Shaw Brothers catalogue, The Avenging Eagle is a lean, mean story of vengeance and redemption, carried by a superb cast and powered by Sun Chung’s masterful direction. A dark and punchy treat. ****

THE GREAT MAGICIAN (2011) short review


In the Warlord era after the Chinese Revolution, a revolutionary group aims to kill a powerful warlord (Lau Ching Wan) to take a step towards reinstating the republic. Said warlord has imprisoned a woman (Zhou Xun) whom he wants to make his new wife, but can’t bring himself to force into mariage. The arrival of a skilled magician (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) with ties to the revolutionary group and a shared past with the imprisoned woman, marks the start of a game of deceit and illusions. Visually, this is an absolutely stunning movie, gorgeously lit, awash in lush production design, and elegantly directed by Derek Yee in a diversion from his more serious contemporary fare. The magician’s scenic tricks are wonderfully executed with seamless CGI and are a joy to behold. Leung, Lau and Zhou are firmly in their comfort zone and their interaction is one of the film’s pleasures, while fun cameos by Tsui Hark and Daniel Wu (among others) spice up the proceedings. Too bad then that the film is so narratively muddled and rhythmically challenged ; the plot proves too meandering for such a playful concoction, which results in an overlong runtime. Still, an enjoyable piece of classy fluff. ***

TOM YUM GOONG 2 (aka THE PROTECTOR 2) (2013) review


In 2005 Tom Yum Goong seemed to cement Thaï action star Tony Jaa’s status as the new martial arts sensation, following his impressive calling card, 2003’s Ong Bak. Though Jaa was light on charisma, and the film itself was little more than a stunt demo reel, with a simplistic story and grainy, amateurish aesthetic, there was no denying the utter death-defying bravado of its fights and stunts, executed with a mix of lithe power and startling flexibility by its star. Tom Yum Goong didn’t shine more plotwise, but was a more polished film, worthy of the big screen : its director and choreographer, Prachah Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, Jaa’s pygmalions, had scaled back the life-threatening stunts but made the fights more momentous by featuring diverse and impressive guest-fighters like Capoeira-dynamo Lateef Crowder, Wushu-wonder John Foo, towering musclehead Nathan Jones and Vietnam’s finest, Johnny Tri Nguyen. Technically and artistically the fights were also things of beauty, with a dizzying 4-minute tracking-shot fight, Jaa breaking the bones of dozens of men in black, or taking on henchmen twice his size. Then came Tony Jaa’s much publicized breakdown on the set of Ong Bak 2, which he had wanted to direct, the eventual underperformance of that film, the complete failure of its second part, Ong Bak 3, and the star’s retreat as a Buddhist monk. Five years later, Tom Yum Goong 2 marks his comeback to films, his reunion with Pinkaew, and his first pairing with the petite martial arts wonder that more or less replaced him during his exile, Jeeja Yanin. And it’s hard not to be sorely disappointed.

The plot is, duh, simple. Kham’s (Tony Jaa) elephant has been stolen, again, so within ten minutes he is back to breaking into buildings or houses, yelling “Chang gu yoo nai !?!” (“Where’s my elephant ?”), and breaking henchmen-bones. His elephant has actually been stolen by Mr. LC (RZA), a shady, err, man who aims to replace its tusks with bombs and offer it as an explosive diplomatic gift to dignitaries of the fictional state of Katana to facilitate a coup-d’etat. Mr. LC has a range of skilled fighters under his command, including the lethal n°2 (Marrese Crump) and the beautiful n°20 (Rhatha “Yayaying” Phongam) ; he has plans to frame Kham, who can only count on his friend Mark (Petchtai “Mum Jokmok” Wongkamlao) and a girl (Jeeja Yanin) whose uncle and twin sister were murdered by n°2.

As we said, within ten minutes a steady stream of fights has been initiated, and the film rarely pauses for more than five minutes before getting back to limb-breaking. The unfortunate bouts of lame comedy from the previous film are gone (comic relief Wongkamlao is enjoyably dialed-down and endearing). Indeed, this is not a boring film at all, and one of the few things it manages to achieve properly is maintain a healthy rythm that never lulls but never goes into overkill either. A side-effect is that, apart from an early set-piece and the grand finale, the fights often feel bitty, always stopping when they’re starting to get interesting : for instance Jaa and Yanin fight twice, but never for longer than a minute, and an action scene where Jaa disposes of security guards in an official building is over much too early. And the more protracted action scenes, while featuring some impressive passages, fail on almost every level. Visually, they’re not a pretty sight, marred by eye-gouging CGI (which we guess was for the sake of the film’s 3D release), a green-screen aesthetic that seems to indicate much of the film was shot on soundstages, with backgrounds digitally added later on, which makes for a distractingly ugly result. One fight set in a room on fire is an unbelievable hack-job, with slapdash CGI fire slathered on the walls.

The awe-inspiring practicality of Jaa’s previous films is gone, with the aforementioned CGI and green screen, but also often apparent wirework ; now, we know Jaa is now approaching his forties, and the breackneck, daring stunts of ten years ago are understandably getting out of his reach, but trickery in film fights is all in the execution, and there’s almost something amateurish in the glaring obviousness of some of the CGI and wirework. Actually, the film often looks like a patch-up job, with its trouble-fraught, unusually protacted production probably accounting for the numerous editing glitches, lapses in narrative logic (even inside the fights), and the fact Jaa’s haircut often changes in the course of a set-piece, becoming shorter then longer again, and so forth. In the early major set-piece where Jaa is hunted by countless bikers on the roofs of Bangkok, shots alternate between location shoot and green-screen insert, sadly detracting from some of the impressive stuntwork and choreography to be found there.

More damningly, the film doesn’t seem to know what its audience wants. Why include Jeeja Yanin, if her role basically amounts to being a punching bag for everyone she fights ? Her character has no real interaction with Jaa’s and is made to pop up randomly in various scenes, attacking Jaa or Crump and generally getting disposed of with a few blows. Why spend so much time on RZA talking or fighting, when the guy is not much of an actor and not much of a fighter either ? Why render Tony Jaa so passive in the last tier of the finale ? He’s basically just hanging to his elephant’s tusks while RZA and Crump pummel him. Still, it’s not all bad. As previously mentioned the film is never boring, and Jaa’s mano-a-mano’s with Marrese Crump are actually quite impressive, with the latter exhibiting some stunning speed and strength, making for a worthy opponent. Jaa himself is still a joy to behold in action, even if seemingly a bit slower and less flexible (a natural evolution) ; he however hasn’t gained much in the way of charisma. But this film is not up to his Pinkaew’s or Yanin’s potential and really, it’s a wonder a 3-year shoot might lead to such a sloppy result.

Long Story Short : Tom Yum Goong 2 is an entertaining but sorely disappointing comeback for Tony Jaa, mired in distractingly ugly CGI and underuse of its talent. **

KICKBOXER (1993) short review


Directed by Wu Ma and sometimes billed as Once Upon A Time In China 6, which it is definitely not, Kickboxer instead focuses on a disciple of Wong Fei Hung (who is absent from the whole film), Yuen Biao’s Lau Zhai, who after being wrongly accused of smuggling opium into China, has to infiltrate a Opium gang led by Chairman Wah (Yuen Wah), with the help of his friend Bucktooth (Wu Ma) and constable Panther (Yen Shi Kwan). Produced not only to cash in on the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, but also to provide Yuen Biao with a starring role worthy of his talents following his sidelining in the first film of Tsui Hark’s series, Kickboxer was unfortunately made with much less money, resulting in a far cheaper look. More disappointingly, despite its ambition to better showcase Yuen Biao, the film relies too much on comedy and not enough on fights. It has crazy moments, like what can only be described as a kung fu chess game between Yuen and Yen Shi Kwan, but overall has the feel of a TV knockoff. Things do get a bit more memorable in final fight between Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah (always an exciting match-up), but in the end, Kickboxer isn’t that much less a waste of Yuen’s massive talents than Once Upon A Time In China was. **