In 1993, near the end of production on Tsui Hark and Jet Li’s third installment in the insanely successful Once Upon A Time In China series, there seemingly was some kind of dispute between director and star, which led to the two not working together for more than a decade, despite their working relationship being as legendary as, say, John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. It also led to Jet Li leaving the Once Upon A Time In China franchise (and being replaced with Vincent Zhao). But less than a year later, Li took the role of Wong Fei-Hung again, in a non-official installment : Last Hero in China.
In a way, Last Hero in China (also called Claws of Steel in some places), is to Jet Li what Never Say Never Again is to Sean Connery: both a loving hommage and a cheeky send-up of the character that made him a superstar. A cheeky send-up, in part because the director is none other than Wong Jing, the ‘master’ of heavy and greasy Hong Kong comedy, but a loving homage, because beneath the comedy, there is still Master Wong’s impeccable mastery of Wushu, choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping (just like the first two Once Upon A Time In China films).
The plot sees Wong Fei Hung, more uptight than ever, relocating his Martial Arts school next to what he soon discovers is a brothel. At the same time, young women mysteriously disappear, kidnapped by a strange sect that deals in human trafficking. Right here you can guess what might be the film’s big problem : an uneven tone. Oscillating between the crassness of brothel comedy and the grimness of human trafficking doesn’t seem like a good idea, and yet somehow it doesn’t jar here. Wong Jing’s directing is surprisingly assured and even sometimes classy, far from the slapdash crassness of most of his films. The comedy is actually less heavy-handed than in Tsui Hark’s installments, though Wong Fei Hung’s clumsy pupils become obnoxious very quickly.
Of course, it helps immeasurably that Yuen Woo-Ping is the action director : he crafts a handful of action scenes that are nearly on a par with those in the official Wong Fei Hung films. Jet Li’s fight against members of the sect in a strange underground room is a highlight, all the more so as it ends with Li squaring off against the legendary Gordon Liu, as the sect’s scary high priest. Later, we are treated to Jet Li’s own version of the “drunken boxing” style made famous by Jackie Chan in his Drunken Master films, in a terrific fight against the film’s main villain, played by Alan Chui, who makes a point of ending each and everyone of his lines with maniacal laughter. But the film earns its literal Chinese title of Iron Rooster Vs Centipede in a demented scene where Wong Fei Hung, clad in a rooster-shaped armor, fights a giant centipede operated by a dozen of henchmen. It almost makes the ladder finale from the first Once Upon A Time In China look like French Nouvelle Vague cinema.
Long Story Short : Too much screen time is given to Wong’s annoying disciples, but the fight scenes are superb, the sense of the grotesque is endearing, and it works well as a hybrid of parody and homage.***