With Jackie Chan celebrating his filmography’s milestones by adding new installments to his most successful franchises, and Donnie Yen getting busier than ever on a variety of action-heavy projects, it’s puzzling to see the wildly different turn Jet Li’s career has taken. Choosing, admirably, to focus on his charity (The One Foundation) and his Tai Chi promotion (Taiji Zen), he has been content for a few years now to appear as a benevolent supporting actor (though always top billed) in films that woefully underuse him both as an actor and as a martial artist. Badges of Fury unfortunately continues that disappointing trend. The real lead here is Wen Zhang, as a cocky young cop who, paired with veteran Jet Li and under the supervision of superior officer Michelle Chen, investigates on a series of murders in which the victims all die with a smile on their face. They cross paths with a stuttering insurance agent (Wu Jing), a whimiscal mob boss (Leung Kar Yan), a Men In Black type supercop (Huang Xiaoming), and many other cameoing stars, but the murders all trace back to an actress who has dated all of the victims (Liu Yan), and her sister (Liu Shi-Shi) who has made a habit out of stealing her boyfriends.
That plot description almost might lead you to believe there is a fun investigation at the heart of Badges of Fury. Not so. Plot-wise the film is an unholy mess, and not in a whimsical, anything-goes way, but rather in a ‘we had money and a list of cameos, product placements and fights to fit in, but no clue how to do it’ kind of way. Mirroring the screen-time ratio between funny guy Wen Zhang and action star Jet Li, the emphasis is put firmly on comedy of the broadest kind, from borderline retarded pratfalls and slapstick (often aided by horrendous CGI), to painfully obvious, in-your-face references (Jet Li’s in the film, so his character his called Wong Fei Hong and the theme music plays when he first appears). At least the film isn’t boring : Wen Zhang is actually a likeable, gifted actor with great comic timing, even if the lack of direction here leaves him completely adrift, and provided you’re well-versed in Chinese cinema you can play ‘spot the Chinese star here to return the producer a favor by appearing 30 seconds in a non-sequitur role’. Jet Li himself probably doesn’t appear more than 20 minutes throughout the whole film, but at least he’s clearly having good fun, turning in a light-hearted performance which, after his sleepwalking through Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, comes as a relief.
But his very presence, and that of other martial arts luminaries like Collin Chou, Wu Jing, Bruce Leung Siu Lung and Leung Kar Yan, as well as the involvement of Corey Yuen as an action director, is bound to create very high expectations as far as action is concerned. The film doesn’t merely fail to meet those expectations, it quite simply doesn’t seem to realize these expectations are here at all. How else can it be explained that such momentous match-ups as Jet Li fighting Wu Jing (for the first time after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it skirmish in The Mummy 3), Collin Chou and Bruce Leung Siu Lung could turn out so short, awkward and/or CGI-heavy ?
Long Story Short : Badges of Fury is not a Jet Li-starring action film, but a Wen Zhang-unleashing comedy. Machine-gun cameos and likeable leads make it watchable, but the action is infrequent and botched and the comedy broad as can be. **