One of China’s greatest folk-heroes, the exploits of Wong Fei Hung have been a mainstay of martial arts movies from Hong Kong and China since nearly the beginning of their cinematic starts. One of the many figures to portray the revered hero, Vincent Zhao returns to the role for the first time since 1994’s ‘Once Upon a Time in China V’ in this independent adventure debuting May 28th on Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray combi from WellGo USA.
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After receiving a strange visitor to his academy, Wong Fei Hung (Vincent Zhao, from “True Legend”) and his assistant Liang Kuan (Li Lubing) discover that the influx of Western opium is starting to become an epidemic in the state. When his long-time friend Mo Shaojun (Wei Na, from “The Faces of My Gene”) arrives in the province, he becomes torn as to be pulled in different directions with the rekindled romance and the sudden onslaught of cases at her clinic of the dangerous new opium drug her boss Lu Xiaoyue (Wei Xiaohuan, from “The Grandmaster”) is supposedly in charge of developing. Despite his best efforts to put a feud with local martial arts teacher Wu Zennan (Michael Tong, from “Tomb Robber”) aside, they find a far more dangerous plot in place between the hospital and the rival school to distribute their new drug and must fight to stop it from being released to the populace.
For the most part, ‘Unity of Heroes’ wasn’t all that bad. Most of the fun here comes from the high quantity of action scenes throughout. This starts with the fire breaking out on the naval camp and the resulting escape of the infected prisoner in the chaos followed by Wong taming the wild individual the next morning. Other martial arts fights, from various demonstrations to full-on fistfights have a lot to like with the briefer conflicts allowing for more spread out in the running time. Likewise, with a strikingly horror-based scenario by the writing team of Niu Xinyao, Gao Yuhao, Yang Ning and director Zhenzhao involving the infected patients of the drug behaving in a ravenous, uncontrollable manner while being impervious to gunshots, there’s some fun to be had with those fights. The sight of the surging veins and physical transformations are quite impressive and add a different dynamic to the choreography with some outlandish wirework stunts. The finale, which features several fights going on at the same time and the villains becoming infected with the drug to fight the heroes, has stellar choreography in both segments and generates a fun finale.
In addition, that aspect of the film with the inclusion of horror-based elements with the new drug in the community has a lot to offer. By offering up the idea that the new drug about to be unleashed is going to physically change an individual by flashing veins and arteries alongside the enhanced strength, there’s an immediate sense of the danger to the populace if it gets out. Despite the grounded nature of the rest of the film, this supernatural influx of elements creates a different tone and feel to the proceedings. With the threat established, Wong’s sense of virtuousness in attempting to put the feud aside to deal with a nationalistic issue easily carries more weight. The strong series of subplots around this story, with Wong and Shaojun rekindling their childhood romance and then Liang and Xioyue getting together when she has a change-of-heart realizing the danger the drugs pose to her countrymen, come together just as well with plenty to like. That change of pace is a really fun subplot, with the two having some solid chemistry in their initial encounter that sparks this but the full-on turn that occurs later in the film is a nice uplifting moment with her then being allowed to fight against her former bosses.
That said, there are some flaws with ‘Unity of Heroes.’ One of the biggest issues here is the overloaded emphasis on Chinese national pride and unity which becomes rather hard to stomach the more it’s mentioned. Whether it’s the little things like the constant mention of who’s better at curing illnesses or using utensils, to more in-depth elements such as the Westerners treatment of Chinese people as a guinea pig for their drugs, there’s a rather strong and overwhelming element of nationalistic pride throughout the film that becomes some cloying. The idea that everyone foreign is out to kill the people in the country is a tired cliche that doesn’t make them any more villainous than they already are without this unneeded part of the film. As well, that also manages to bring about a disappointing pace with this influx of national pride holding up the fighting to those brief spurts that highlight the rather fantastic choreography by stunt choreographer Sun Jianshe. This is a rather disappointing facet and really holds this one back.
Despite a few minor issues at play here with some overblown social commentary and some flimsy fighting at times, ‘Unity of Heroes’ offers up enough interesting elements to be a solid enough kung-fu effort. This is really for those who are fans of the genre or looking for a fun, nostalgic kung-fu effort, while those interested in something more than that should heed caution with this one.