He-Man was a surprising project from director Ding Sheng : a direct sequel to his 2007 action-comedy The Underdog Knight, which was an interesting but flawed little film that barely registered at the box-office. To follow up on this film more than four years later, and with a far less prestigious cast (Liu Ye returns, but Anthony Wong, Sun Honglei, Yu Rongguang and Yong You don’t, and there’s no one on their level here), was an unexpected move. But the thing is, sequels at best can be a way to fine tune a formula while returning to a compelling character or set of characters, and that is exactly what He-Man does. The Underdog Knight had the awkwardness of a directing debut, but He-Man shows the sure hand of a director who’s found his style and cut his teeth, namely with the funny and soulful Little Big Soldier.
And so the titular underdog knight is back : a kind-hearted, mentally challenged ex-military called Lao San (Liu Ye), who is on a perpetual mission to rid the world from ‘bad guys’, with martial arts proficience and a gourd as his only weapons. Most of the time these ‘bad guys’ are actually small time crooks and rude citizens he meets on the street as he cycles through his city for his job as a bike courier, but once in a while he finds himself squaring against serious criminals, as in the first film, where he foiled the theft of a priceless antique. This time, he walks right into a bank robbery orchestrated by Yong (Steve Yoo) and his brother. He does not realize there’s a robbery going on, but intervenes when one of the criminals hits a receptionist, Xiaohui (Eileen Zhang). While Lao San takes on Yong, who’s an equally good fighter, the police arrives, among which is officer Han (Vincent Chiao), who happens to be Xiaohui’s over-protective brother and Yong’s longtime nemesis; as the situation escalates he shoots Yong’s brother, leaving him in a coma. A few months later Lao San and Xiaohui start dating, much to the disapproval of her big brother, and Yong is sent to jail, but he escapes a year later. Bent on revenge against officer Han and determined to be reunited with his still-unconscious brother, he kidnaps Xiaohui, sending both the cop and the retarded vigilante hot on his trail.
The best thing about The Underdog Knight was its titular character : Lao San is a great creation, a man you can both root for, because he’s compassionate and righteous, and laugh at, because he numbingly stupid ; a hero, or rather antihero, who’s both badass (he’s fearless and a great fighter) and pathetic (he has the mind of a six -year-old’s and is constantly spouting military slogans) ; he’s both an underdog, as a lowly bike courier fighting for justice, and a bully : his clueless rigidity makes him beat up offenders even after they’ve gone clean. It’s a great character on paper, but onscreen it’s a great performance by Liu Ye, who sells its contradictions with both endearing humanity and a deft comedic touch. Lao San could easily have been insufferable or unlikeable in the hands of a lesser actor, but Liu Ye is never less than stellar in the role.
But unlike in the first film, here Ding Sheng manages to incorporate this unique character into a compelling narrative. It’s not that the plot is elaborate or original : it’s a fairly generic tale of robberies and revenge with a kidnapping thrown in. But its pacey, playful simplicity fits the character of Lao San much better than the relative slow burn of The Underdog Knight, and provides him with a proper nemesis in the person of Steve Yoo, whose character, while mentally able, is as physically dangerous and as single-minded as Lao San. He’s not necessarily a bad man, but his dogged quest to be reunited with his brother makes him an unstoppable force, and seeing him meet an immovable object in the person of Lao San, is one of the film’s pleasure and fills the film with energy, especially as Steve Yoo, displaying impressive muscles and powerful moves, gives his character an emotional and physical animality.
He-Man is also a much more action-packed affair than its predecessor. Fights and chases erupt both as integral parts of the plot (such as when Lao San foils the bank robbery), and as digressions, like in a mostly gratuitous but exciting and superbly shot parkour chase between officer Han and Yong’s partner, played by dancer Xu Dongmei in a striking but fleeting appearance. Liu, Yoo and Chiao all acquit themselves with gusto, and Jackie Chan Stunt Team member He Jun orchestrates the numerous fights with flair and down to earth efficiency ; indeed, this is one of the best action films of 2011 (which, granted, was also allowed by that year’s very thin action crop). The comedy is mostly inspired, with hilarious recurring situations (a rude driver gets knocked out by Lao San on a regular basis), droll misunderstandings and quirky details keeping the film constantly funny without coalescing into gags per se : the comedy is always lateral, never forced, it coexists with the film’s dramatic thread without ever taking precedence or coming into exclusive focus. It’s a balancing act reminiscent of Oxide Pang’s The Detective, and actually a crossover of these two franchises might yield interesting and entertaining results (just wishful thinking here).
Not that He-Man is entirely successful : plot-holes abound, the film’s refreshing brevity coming at the price of a few unconvincing narrative shortcuts. Crucially, the relationship between Lao San and Xiaohui is both underdeveloped and barely believable : one simply can’t picture a beautiful and intelligent woman becoming romantically involved with a mentally challenged vigilante. Their romantic subplot also sputters into a message that violence, even when fighting bad guys, is not always the answer, which is neither here nor there, given that Lao San’s violent and simplistic crime-fighting is a result of his mental condition anyway. Still, when the end credits roll to a catchy song performed by Liu Ye himself, we find ourselves hoping we’ll see Lao San knock out minor offenders with his gourd.
Long Story Short : He-Man is a punchy, quirky and often irresistible little action-comedy whose plot-holes are compensated by a great central character deftly played by Liu Ye. ***1/2