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. ****