Despite the messy neck-slittings, face-knucklings and bone-splinterings, Kung Fu Killer (née Kung Fu Jungle) shows a lot of respect. Not for body parts or for the basic laws of physics, but for the cinematic bloodline it so gleefully splits open and spills all over the hyper-neon streets of present-day Hong Kong. Director Teddy Chan knows his way around a brutal fight scene for sure, and he makes it clear from even the film’s first moments—when action legend Donnie Yen confesses a murder to two duty cops, played by Hong Kong film stalwarts Steve Chan (sound) and stuntman Wong Wai-fai—that his return to directing after five years will be totally in thrall to the filmmaking dynasties that raised him.
In the sense that Chan’s latest is something of an homage, the plot loosely follows any number of martial arts flicks, wherein a character’s whole sense of self-worth revolves around more than just the mastery of a specific fighting style, but being recognized as the best of that style—the irrefutable “No. 1”—a title earned through a series of super-serious duels. So begins the story of Hahou Mo (Yen), a martial arts instructor working for the police force who, in accidentally killing an opponent during just such a confrontation for warrior supremacy, is sentenced to five years behind bars. Fast-forward three years, and after seeing a news report about a mysterious homicide, Hahou Mo takes it upon himself to singlehandedly beat senseless a roomful of fellow inmates (led by long-time martial arts actor Hoi Mang) in order to get the attention of Detective Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Yeung). Once she agrees to speak with him, Ha informs her that he knows whom the killer will go for next. It’s simple: the first victim (who was Hong Kong’s No. 1 master of punching) was literally punched to death, and basic martial arts expertise/training follows from punching, to kicking, to grappling, to weapons—and then? All the cops have to do is let Hahou Mo go free to have both the insider’s knowledge and inimitable prowess of the city’s best fighter at their disposal.
Which the Detective eventually allows once another of Ha’s predicted victims (Shi Yanneng, the film’s No. 1 master of kicking) turns up sufficiently mangled, this time kicked—of course—to death after a high-wire fight scene upon the spine of a giant human skeleton on display as part of the Kowloon Art Expo. Yep—that happens, and it is one of many preposterous combat sequences that Chan shoots with an effortless sense of space. Each thud of fist against chest or crack of foot against shin Chan fuels with an overblown bit of foley work and a sublimated knack for precision. It must be all those martial arts movies he loves so much—the director may have his potboiler plot down to a science, but he infuses this tired material with the belief that even the most formulaic genre stuff can find rebirth in the right balance of energy and admiration.
The culprit behind the serial killings is the cackling Fung Yu-Sau (the magnificent Baoqiang Wang), who we quickly learn is targeting former members of Ha’s martial arts school, challenging Hong Kong’s top expert in each prominent fighting style in order to battle his way to the ultimate No. 1—meaning that, of course, he will face Ha in order to triumphantly prove his murderous mettle. Fung represents one side of martial arts practice, in that he wields power as a means to an end, meaning he finds foolishness in the belief that kung fu can be used for anything but killing. His foil, necessarily, is Ha, who, having once lost control of his skills sees martial arts practice as a grand study in restraint, in the art of harnessing power rather than using it. So, Fung Yu-Sau murders his way up to Ha, indulging in some sword play with a movie star (Louis Fan) after manhandling a dope-smoking denizen of a ratty Hong Kong apartment (Yu Kang), checking off “weapons” and “grappling,” respectively, on his kung fu mastery scorecard. Meanwhile, Ha returns to his martial arts school to check in with Sinn Ying (Michelle Bai), a formidable weapons fighter in her own right and probably Ha’s former lover. Or protégé. Like in ancient Greece, they’re kind of the same thing.
Clichés pile up as Kung Fu Killer begins to lose traction under the weight of unnecessary plot points. Early in the film, Fung is identified as the villain, though the police force spends much of its time hand-wringing over scarce evidence as to his name, location and intent. They inevitably become convinced that, due to some shoddy CCTV footage and a bird pendant Fung leaves with his victims (which leads circumspectly back to Ha’s martial arts school), Ha must be in cahoots with Fung. Which doesn’t really matter anyway, because even Ha knows that Fung will find him in the end, their climactic confrontation forecasted from the very beginning. This pitting of martial arts against modern police work is nothing new to the genre, but in Kung Fu Killer it feels especially facile—that is, until the film’s final scene, in which Detective Luk proves that guns are mightier than even the most focused No. 1 fighter.
It’s an odd conclusion for a martial arts crime flick, mostly because it serves to put a cap on its particular brand of filmmaking with the assertion that so much of what came before (especially the genre’s, and Yen’s, best, like Kill Zone and Flash Point) culminates here in a film that exists as both a cinematic exercise and a fitting admission that perhaps these kinds of movies have run their course. They haven’t, but it’s a hard feeling to shake when Chan ends the film in an extended “thanks” to practically every notable figure of Hong Kong action cinema, listing in total Kung Fu Killer’s cameos, not to mention reminding the audience of the posters and iconic films briefly shown throughout, digging all the way back to old Shaw Brothers classics. There’s an old movie poster of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or Fists of Fury caught in the corner of a frame; the credits to Beast Stalker play on an old TV before a SWAT team raids a bath house; Jackie Chan in his prime poses behind VHS static, visual white noise during an early scene. The film is dripping with admiration.
That Chan even incorporates a fight scene on a movie set—replete with venerable industry mainstay Joe Cheung as the director in charge of what seems to be a movie exactly like Kung Fu Killer—into his laundry list of impressive set pieces only drives the message home even further. So much so that by the time the film reaches its final montage of dedications and fanboy love, it almost seems too overloaded with signifiers, winks and humble acknowledgements of its roots. Which in itself is a noble move on Chan’s part, but for all of the wondrous fight scenes and the endless enjoyment one can wrench from watching 51-year-old Yen run circles around stuntmen half his age, Kung Fu Killer seems like more of an acknowledgement that the genre’s got nowhere else to go than it is a celebration of where the genre can go next.
Director: Teddy Chan
Writers: Teddy Chan, Ho Leung Lau, Tin Shu Mak
Starring: Donnie Yen, Charlie Leung, Baoqiang Wang, Michelle Bai
Release Date: April 24, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.