I just had the opportunity to check out Rise of the Legend, the latest in the pantheon of Wong Fei Hung movies that fans (like me) have enjoyed over the years. From Kwan Tak Hing, to Liu Chia Hui, to Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhao Wen Zho, Chin Kar Lok; Fei Hung was even played by a girl in one of my favorite films, Iron Monkey (‘93.) Angie Tsang played a young Wong Fei Hung in one of my favorite (actually) depictions of the character in that film. My personal favorite Wong Fei Hung was Jet Li, but this new kid might just have the goods, so to speak, Eddie Peng brings a youth and grittiness to the character that I honestly haven’t seen before. You may know Eddie Peng as perhaps the most interesting part of the Kung Fu Hero/Zero series, playing the villain Fang Zi Jing. I have to say, he makes a compelling Wong Fei Hung. But he isn’t my issue with this movie.
First of all, I should mention that Rise Of The Legend is a reboot of sorts, if it can be translated into Kung Fu Movie terms, it’s kind of like Star Trek ’09 in that department, or better yet, more like Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel/meets 300/meets Once Upon an/Iron Monkey…In China. This Wong Fei Hung is a bit grittier, and a bit darker than the character has been portrayed in the past, and, as much as I hate to bandy this term about, “Fei”, as they call him in this one, is kind of, well, gangster. Literally. By which I mean he spends the better part of the film rolling with gangsters, literally doing gangster shit. In this respect and a few others it rewrites history, so to speak. Also gone here is the amiable relationship between Wong Key Ying and Wong Fei Hung, Fei Hung is, in fact, orphaned at a young age in the film. They do touch on just a hint of the relationship established between father and son in Iron Monkey, even giving subtle visual reference to certain scenes from Iron Monkey and forcing the legend of umbrella-as-weapon into your movie-hole for a minute or less. I know what you’re thinking: “Then how does he learn the famous Tiger/Crane set that pretty much defines the character???” Yeah…about that… We come to what might be my biggest issue with Rise of the Legend: it really glosses over that whole aspect of the character, which seems dumb when you consider the fact that the movie is about a Kung Fu hero, who just happens to be the progenitor of modern Hung Gar. While the fight scenes are well done, it feels a bit like giving Superman Super Saiyan powers or Robin Hood a crossbow: some things are just fundamental elements of a character and simply need to be there. Much like Kung Fu itself; “Without a strong foundation your kung fu is no good” – Any Kung Fu Teacher Worth a Damn.
By the same token it certainly doesn’t suck either. When Corey Yuen is handling action and fight choreography, it’s never going to be anything less than decent, and this is pretty decent, even “pretty good”. As CG/wire work-y action goes, they really did a damn good job with it, even adding a new dimension with a first person perspective in certain fights that, I have to admit, from a filmmaking aspect, were actually very interesting and cool as hell. If you like CG effects, a lot of wire work, and “300” style slo-mo in your fight scenes, then this is your flick. That stuff is really not my bag, and certainly not in my kung fu; much as I never cared for those excessively under-cranked, comedically fast paced fight scenes of some 90’s ‘Fu flicks. (I’m looking at you Legend of The Wolf, & Iron Monkey 2.)
It was good to see Sammo Hung back at it again. I have to say, I really like him as a villain, and his portrayal of Black Tiger Gang leader, Lei Gong probably cemented that fact. That said, I don’t know if I like “wire work Sammo”, I mean, it’s okay but it just seems superfluous, like giving Darth Vader a machine gun (which might be kind of entertaining in the right context), it just begs the question: “but why?”
The plot is kind of convoluted, and part of the reason I referenced Man of Steel, because it does that jumping-around-in-time thing that Zack Snyder does in Man of Steel, (Snyder handled it better), but it ends up having that 12 Years A Slave feel, where you’re not totally sure what’s happening or where you are in time at certain points in the movie, especially if you are also reading subtitles. There is also little to no mention of Wong Fei Hung’s interest in healing arts, and it really glazes over Wong Fei Hung the Kung Fu teacher as well. It’s almost a bit like Batman: Year One in these respects because it seems to tell the tale of what Wong Fei Hung might have been up to before he opened the now famous Po Chi Lam school and clinic (also not referenced). At two hours and ten minutes, it’s also a little long, but not ridiculously so.
I can’t really speak on director Roy Hin Yeung Chow’s job on this one because 1) he only has three previous director credits to his name, none of them action, 2) with Sammo and Corey Yuen on set, let’s be honest, he had a lot of help, how much I can’t say.
To put it in a nutshell: Rise of the Legend is an entertaining take on a classic tale. The acting is solid, the action is solid, and the cinematography is actually quite good. If you like the current trend in period style Kung Fu movies, you will love this. If you don’t, well, it’s still not bad at all. Ultimately, I encourage you to see it for yourself as Rise of the Legend is at least worth the watch. I would also be open to seeing Eddie Peng reprise the role, and the way this film ended seems like a perfect opening to set up a new series of sequels.