It’s been 17 years since the folk hero Wong Fei Hung last graced the big screen, in Sammo Hung’s Once Upon a Time in China and America in 1997. Now, as most hits of the nineties are given the reboot treatment, from the ancient legends of The Monkey King to the edgy streets of Young and Dangerous, it seemed obvious that the Chinese martial artist, physician and revolutionary, as well as hero of over 100 films, would make a comeback. Surprisingly, this comeback wasn’t handled by Tsui Hark, who with Flying Swords of Dragon Gate showed a willingness to revisit his earlier films, but by Roy Chow, director of two interesting but sometimes misguided films, Murderer (2009) and Nightfall (2012). This is, as the impressively bland title suggests, an origins story, and it follows Wong Fei Hung (Eddie Peng) both as a kid learning valuable life lessons from his father Wong Kei Ying (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and being scarred forever by his death in a criminal fire, and as a young man infiltrating a ruthless gang led by the formidable Lei (Sammo Hung, who also produces), who controls the docks of Canton, owns opium dens and sells slaves to the usual evil Gweilos. Wong is helped by his childhood friends (Jing Boran, May Wang and Angelababy), but many sacrifices await him.
In aiming to be the story of how Wong Fei Hung became Wong Fei Hung, Roy Chow’s Rise of the Legend borrows significant features from various Hollywood origins stories of the past decade. Like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, it has a chronologically fragmented storyline that constantly hops from the hero’s young adulthood to his troubled childhood, and places a dramatic emphasis on the hero’s father as a doomed figure that imparts him with key personality traits, while also providing the hero with a mountain top education. Like Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, it withholds signature elements of the character’s filmic persona until the final reel, like his musical theme or his umbrella and hat. And as a footnote, like Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood it casts the younger version of the character with an actor who’s actually older than the last two actors who played him as a fully formed adult : 32-year-old Eddie Peng plays ‘young’ Wong Fei Hung, while Jet Li and Vincent Zhao were 28 and 21 respectively when they took on the role of ‘fully grown-up’ Wong Fei Hung. The story itself is a mix of themes typical of Wong Fei Hung’s cinematic history like foreign interference, clan wars and social justice, with tropes associated with the undercover thriller, a typically Hong Kong genre that reached overkill after the triumph and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs.
All this to say Rise of the Legend is not exactly a beacon of originality, though in fairness that was not needed for it to succeed either artistically or commercially. Christine To’s screenplay packs a fair dramatic punch, though it sometimes twists the chronology in a way that is probably supposed to make the proceedings seem more complex or intricate than they actually are, but doesn’t really work: to show something happening then backtrack 10 minutes earlier is quite often a misguided and clunky device. Also, the film simmers along for too much of its runtime; there are three action set pieces at the beginning, middle and end, in between which urgency and poignancy are scarce. And while the nineties’ Wong Fei Hung films often had overbearing comic relief, Roy Chow’s film does the exact opposite by being an overly self-serious affair, with the only faint signs of humour coming from Wong Cho Lam’s underused Bucktooth.
The aforementionned action set-pieces are efficiently choreographed by Corey Yuen, but marred by the unholy trinity of annoying action directing gimmicks : awkward wire-work that never chooses whether to adhere to the laws of physics or not, constant slow-motion that favors shots of stepping into puddles (a la Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters) or of faces being distorted by a punch, and ugly, gratuitous CGI meant to make some situations more 3D-friendly (though we can’t comment on that as we saw a 2D version of the film). Still, other than some instances of ill-judged CGI, this is a stunning film to look at, from lavish sets by Lan Bin to low-key and classy costumes by Boey Wong, all bathed in Andy Ng’s tasteful photography.
The casting, much like the rest of the film itself, is of varying quality. At the center of it all – though interestingly second-billed after Sammo Hung – Eddie Peng is a thoroughly misguided and unconvincing Wong Fei Hung. Not that he’s a bad actor, but Peng carries a contemporary vibe that doesn’t suit the role at all; imagine Ben Affleck as Robin Hood. But Peng is not helped by the film’s lingering shots of his abdominals and pectorals (is that really what Roy Chow thinks this Wong Fei Hung is about?) and the way the character is written : this Wong is made to be in turn arrogant, whiny and brooding, and while some of that can be attributed both to the part he’s playing to infiltrate the gang, and to the fact this is not the ‘fully-formed’ Wong Fei Hung, it’s just so far from what the character represents and there’s so little transition to the moment he finally appears as the title’s ‘legend’, that for now he never could be mentionned in the same breath as either Kwan Tak Hing, Jackie Chan, Jet Li or even Vincent Zhao (he is, however, less annoying than Willie Chi in Drunken Master 3, and more memorable than Wong Gok in Heroes among Heroes).
Then, of course, there’s the presence of the living legend Sammo Hung, who gets a cool but underwritten role, whose sole feature is that he’s an awe-inspiring man of power. It could have been interesting to provide him with a backstory or with softening elements (Sammo’s brutal mob boss character in S.P.L., for instance, was also a devoted family man), but the script makes him little more than an impressive cardboard cut-out. Luckily, Sammo Hung is pretty good at being awe-inspiring, and he blows Eddie Peng off the screen in every one of his appearances. Tony Leung Ka Fai hasn’t got much more than an extended cameo as Wong Kei Ying, and it’s too bad Chow and To decided to use him as a traumatic character-building device, rather than having him alive and well in his son’s adulthood like in Tsui Hark’s films, because Leung is perfect in the role. The historical truth however, is halfway between Tsui and Chow: Wong Kei Ying died when his son was about 20.
The rest of the cast is fine but underused: Jing Boran in particular cuts a more interesting figure in his limited screentime than Eddie Peng, while Byron Mann has great dangerous charisma as Sammo’s second foster son. Angelababy and May Wang are however left on the sidelines too often. And Wong Cho Lam shows he could be a terrific Bucktooth, if indeed Rise of the Legend sparks a franchise, which at this point is touch and go, given the film’s fairly lukewarm critical and commercial reception; US$30 million on the Mainland isn’t a disaster, but still a bit of an underperformance. Kwan Tak Hing was 76 when he last played Dr Wong; at 51, it’s not too late to call back Jet Li.
Long Story Short : A visually stunning but narratively half-baked film that suffers from a miscast Eddie Peng as Wong Fei Hung, Rise of the Legend is solid but as grandiose and bland as its title. **1/2