In the years following the 1997 retrocession of Hong Kong, when there were concerns over the fate of the Hong Kong film industry, one artistic collaboration was a beacon of hope, churning out nearly two films every year, most of them big hits : director Andrew Lau and actor/singer Ekin Cheng. Hot off the considerable success of Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero, they again collaborated on The Legend of Speed in 1999. It is surprising to see how similar The Legend of Speed is to the Fast & Furious films, and at the same time to note that Andrew Lau’s film actually pre-dates Rob Cohen’s first installment of the famous street-racing franchise. So this is not a case of Hong Kong cinema ripping off Hollywood successes. But the basic ingredients are the same : bad boys going toe to toe in street races, surrounded by hot babes. The main difference would be that there is no criminal dimension in The Legend of Speed ; it is more of a genuine sports film.
Ekin Cheng is Sky, a street racer who has everything : wealth (thanks to his rich business woman mother), a beautiful girlfriend (the beautiful and therefore well cast Kelly Lin), and a well-earned reputation as an undefeated champion, thanks in part to a crack team of admirers/techs. But he’s also a bit of a spoilt brat, and what you might call a “sore winner”, who instead of wagering money, likes to wager his opponents legs, meaning he’ll break them if he wins. All this changes when Tan Fung (Simon Yam), a former street-racing legend who once won against Sky’s now-disappeared father, is released from prison. Sky and Tan Fung race against each other, but an accident happens, that claims both the life of Sky’s girlfriend, and Sky’s confidence behind a steering wheel. Grieving and humiliated, he decides to go to Thailand to try and find his long lost father.
Given that The Legend of Speed has the same screenwriter (Manfred Wong) as the incoherent A Man Called Hero, it is surprising to see that it actually makes sense, and is even well structured. It’s nothing new though, but the usual story of “cocky champion gets humiliated and has to learn valuable life lessons with a mentor before returning stronger than ever”, when told right, is still a winner. Another surprise comes in the form of Ekin Cheng’s performance. Specializing most of the time in dead-eyed would-be intensity, Cheng is quite good here, expressing very well the maturing process of his character. Blacky Ko as his father is both goofy and heartfelt, and would be the scene-stealer if not for the prensence of Simon Yam, who is lots of fun as the affable villain. Yam’s charisma is always a thing to behold, and at times you almost wish he would win. Cecilia Cheung is as usual slightly obnoxious as a crazed fan of Sky who also has an enormous crush on him, but the budding love story between the two is surprisingly touching, the age and maturity difference between the two being adressed rather than swept under the rug.
And what about the racing scenes ? They’re surprisingly underwhelming : you get a sense of speed but not of danger or tension. But it is a testament to the film’s overall effectiveness that it doesn’t matter that much in the end. The Legend of Speed succeeds in telling the story of a boy becoming a man, and rather than swamping us in endless street races, it takes its time to show a father and a son bonding. Now that‘s unexpected coming from an Andrew Lau/Ekin Cheng collaboration.
Long Story Short : Surprisingly, The Legend of Speed isn’t really an exciting street-racing film. What it is however, is a rather touching story of personal growth and father-son bonding, anchored in a better-than-average Ekin Cheng performance, and spiced with Simon Yam’s delightful scenery-chewing.***