There comes a time in every action hero’s career when they must branch out from the chosen field to try their hand at other genres, which is what Donnie Yen accomplishes here. Trying to merge his action-packed brand of martial arts with a light family-friendly comedy, this new effort arrives on Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack from WellGo USA on May 21.
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Arriving at a run-down secondary school, former Marine Henry Chan (Donnie Yen, from “Ip Man”) accepts a job as a teacher at the place where he immediately meets students Jack Li (Jack Lok), Gordon Xiang (Gordon Lau), Gladys Wong (Gladys Li), Chris Kwan (Chris Tong), and his brother Bruce (Bruce Tong) in his class. As he uses his unconventional tactics to try to inspire them to prepare for the upcoming series of tests to get into universities, the more the students realize that their personal problems and the pressures from the school board are able to be vanquished, as he manages to help them solve their problems. Upon realizing that they’ve got more problems to deal with as a land developer is looking to move in on the school’s land to turn into a housing project, he brings out all the tools he can to help the students get to their best selves on the test to save the school.
Overall, ‘Big Brother’ was quite a bit of fun. One of the more enjoyable aspects is the ability of the film to embrace the lighter side of its storyline. The fact that he manages to come in and fix everything and everyone in front of him through the unconventional method of caring about his students strikes as a wholly fun concept. The scenes of Chan in the classroom teaching students about the unconventional nature of the world that are not normally taught in classes, offer a distinctive touch to the film. As well, the manner of him almost immediately influencing their lives, from helping Gladys win over her father with her love of racing, to get Faiyaz over his stage fright, all manage to showcase the positive influence Chan has on their lives. To see it play out with the change in behavior and responsibility to others around them is a strong testament to the manner in which those lessons are imparted, makes for a truly uplifting experience.
On top of that kind of sentimentality, ‘Big Brother’ still offers up some nice hard-hitting action for those interested. The fact that Donnie is still at the top of his game, the initial scene of the fights against the locker room full of mixed martial artists that he not only manages to hold off in an extended brawl, but fights the champion to a draw leaves this with a great first impression. As well, the flashback to his life in the war offers a stellar sequence with the heavy artillery and weaponry typically found in such endeavors. This scene is a nice highlight effort, featuring explosions and gunfire blasting all over the place and generating some excitement by being so different than the rest of the film. Coupled with the major brawl against the guards holding the students’ hostage in order to prevent their chances at the test, the action here isn’t as frequent as expected, but has some great points when it does occur.
Still, there are a few issues with ‘Big Brother.’ Among the main problems here is the heavy-handed preaching about the Hong Kong educational system that really doesn’t need to be as forceful and dominating as this one gets. With Chan going through a series of loud, impassioned speeches about the lack of tolerance educators have towards the students on the fringes of their system and only caring about the ones at the top who will move on in life, there is a decided leaning towards a statement that this setup is in dire need of change. When one of the students attempts suicide because of the pressures of taking the test, that the administration’s first impulse is to blame the teacher instead of helping the student, speaks a lot about this society. This ends up feeling far too heavily tinged on the social commentary aspects for what is supposedly a lighter genre fare. That might also end up taking the action-packed martial arts out of the film, but this was never that kind of movie and those looking for that kind of film will be sorely disappointed.
With some stellar positives and only a few minor qualms to be had here, ‘Big Brother’ ends up with a lot to really like about it. Give this one a look if you’re interested in Yen’s career and want to try something else of his or looking for a slightly different take on the action genre, while those put off by the flaws featured here should heed mild caution.