Donnie Yen shows no signs of slowing down in this exciting but silly action thriller
“Martial arts is meant to kill.”
Donnie Yen is fifty-one, although watching this, you wouldn’t believe it. Here, he’s at the top of his game, both as a martial artist and an actor. Kung Fu Killer – also somewhat confusingly titled Kung Fu Jungle – stars Yen as martial arts master Hahou Mo who, at the start of the film, gives himself in to police custody after the accidental killing of an opponent during a duel. Three years later, Inspector Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Young) is investigating the murder of an old martial arts champion, who was found in an underpass beaten to death, when Mo sees this in the news. Calling on Luk, Mo offers his help as he believes he knows who the murderer will strike next, and what his motives are. Together they race against the clock to catch the man before he can get anyone else.
The film in its simplicity is equal parts police procedural and martial arts showcase, so I think it’s fair to review the movie in such a way as well. As a crime thriller and murder mystery, Kung Fu Killer isn’t anything new. The story beats are familiar and offer nothing particularly new, save in one or two instances. For example, the Silence of the Lambs “prisoner helps the police” story is turned on its head as Hahou Ma is a sympathetic hero who is remorseful for the actions that put him in prison. He wants to catch the killer (Wang Baoqiang) and prevent more people from dying not because killer is some pretender to his champion’s throne or anything, but because he doesn’t want to see his old friends and peers die. Hahou Ma is presented as a down-to-earth and highly likeable man who has made mistakes in the past and wishes to make up for them.
With that exception, the film follows the story beats you expect, although you do get to see who the killer is quite early. Again, this works to the story’s advantage. Director Teddy Chan knows he isn’t dealing with anything fresh or groundbreaking, so he uses it to his advantage by instead focusing on the characters. The villain’s motivation is a little hazy but it doesn’t really matter; the crime element of the story is strong enough for it to work between action sets – and that’s really what the film is about.
I mentioned earlier that the film is a martial arts showcase, because of the method and order behind the murders. Hahou Ma understands early on that Fung Yu-Sau, the titular Kung Fu Killer, is choosing his opponents based on various disciplines, and so there are spectacular sequences featuring fists, kicking, grappling and sword fighting, and each one is a visual treat in its own respect. The climax itself is worth mentioning, featuring a creative fight on a freeway.
Kung Fu Killer is very much a classic martial arts film in many respects and the story is mostly incidental and serves more as a reason to give us battles in various nice locations. The action is over-the-top and very exciting, but there’s nothing that suspends your disbelief too much, and it’s all done with relative believability. Teddy Chan succumbs to a “quick cut” style to filmmaking, which forbids the camera from staying on any piece of the action for more than a few seconds, which leaves us with fight scenes that have less impact than if the shots were longer. In particular, there is a scene where a character leaps from one rooftop to one much further away and it cuts three times during this jump. This was perhaps necessary as such a jump was potentially impossible and might have looked dumb in one take, but it also serves to emphasise that what we’re watching is less real than it would like you to think.
The cast is all decent, with Donnie Yen scowling his way through the majority of the film, and Charlie Young likes to yell orders a lot. Wang Baoqiang pulls more than his fair share of crazy faces throughout the film, gurning and screaming his way to murderous victory. None of this is to be taken really seriously, though. Despite the gritty colour palette and the stylised shooting style, this film is there to provide us with some solid entertainment, which it does wholeheartedly.
Verdict: Kung Fu Killer decides plot holes and so-so storytelling is a decent compromise in exchange for some very fun and entertaining martial arts battles, and it works.