I’m pretty new to Eddie Peng, having only seen him in Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero at the time of the release. However, in the few years since then, he’s appeared to be just the kind versatile actor a director looks for, and maybe even one bold enough to take the lead in the revival of a classic martial arts film mainstay. Leave that effort to director Roy Chow Hin-Yeung whose career compass following Murderer (2009) and Nightfall (2012) now bring him to the forefront of his latest 2014 kung fu epic, Rise Of The Legend, reviving the folklore of martial arts hero Wong Fei Hung with an origin tale that does the work that none of its previous films did, lending plenty of opportunity for something truly fresh to bloom.
The film opens with Peng front and center in a big-scale alleyway fight sequence, a highlight from a certain point in the story we reach later on. From there, the intial build-up moves back and forth through Wong’s life from boyhood to adulthood, some with moments of his father, Wong Key-Ying, played by Tony Leung Ka-Fai, leading up to where the story principally begins – 1868 in Guangzhou, China, a time of social and economic decay, war, crime and injustice. And at the center of it all: Huangpu Port where bodies of slave workers mysteriously float along the harbor, and anyone who voices dissent is discarded accordingly.
Wong, now 21 years of age, is a skilled martial artist posing as an aspiring up-and-comer in the ranks of the Black Tiger Gang led by the notorious Lei Gong (Sammo Hung). Little does our crimeboss and his minions know that an intricate and clever plan has slowly begun to unfold that could ultimately relenquish Lei Gong’s of his stranglehold over Guangzhou, with the help of friends Big Tooth (Wong Cho-Lam), Fiery (Jing Boran) and Chun (Wang Luodan) and a brewing rebellion within the city. Meanwhile, politics are at the forefront of both The Black Tigers and their rivals, The Northern Sea gang and its vengeful leader’s son, Wu Long (Max Zhang), and with Lei Gong gaining the upperhand on all fronts, word has also gotten around that he’s illegally locked away 300 Chinese workers to be shipped overseas for foreign businessmen.
As the seeds of war sow little by little, the film journeys us further into Wong’s background through tragedy, his training from early age and struggles with life and philosophy, and what it learns to be a true hero. We also learn more about the depth of his friendships and his relationships, and the turmoil he faces in the course of infiltrating the Black Tigers with the indiscriminate nature of war; Casualties accumulate on both sides and with Lei Gong’s paranoia and suspicion surfacing, it’s only a matter of time before Wong enters his first real arena, championing the people in need of a hero.
This isn’t the first action film Peng has involved himself in having previously gone MMA with Dante’s Lam’s winning drama, Unbeatable. In that respect, you have to give Peng tons of credit for contributing as much athleticism and gravitas as he could to a role like this given the weight it carries. He’s proven himself to be a very charismatic and decent actor, as well as a formidable action performer in his own right with a good director and choreographer. To that extent, action director Corey Yuen Kwai’s vision here in recalibrating the kind of action we’ve come to familiarize ourselves with in previous Wong Fei-Hung films, primiarily from that of the Once Upon A Time In China movies with Jet Li and Vincent Zhao, is something of a reward for our patience; Apart from Shaolin (2011), it had been a long while since I’d seen a film with Yuen’s involvement that had great action sequences that felt new and fresh as opposed to repetitive and tame; Having watched films like D.O.A.: Dead Or Alive when it was released, instead you’re left feeling like you’re better off popping in a copy of She Shoots Straight or So Close, which is a sign that you can now recognize a coordinator’s handiwork, as well as determine its creative extent, and really, Dead Or Alive was just plain lazy and almost discouraging.
To that end, Yuen’s sequences still rely partly on spectacle and slick editing, but it doesn’t take away much from the authenticity of the sequences themselves save for some obvious visual effects work here and there. The approach to the cinematography here has some cool gems to it as does the action with several moments peppered with flare – swords are so sharp that they cut the air and almost anything within a few feet, adding a sense of danger and excitement to the action we see, and the fights are brutal, fierce, and sometimes bloody. It’s worth critiquing, however, that Peng’s performance here doesn’t transition that of what we saw in actors like Li, or even Jackie Chan or the late Kwan Tak-Hing. There’s a little less style tacked onto Peng’s iteration of Wong with brute force, strength and agility signifying this version than that of the grace and flexibility we saw in the Wongs of yesteryear.
Beyond all that lies a story we are fondly presented by writer Christine To who wrote Jet Li’s 2006 film, Fearless. In Rise Of The Legend, we get to explore Wong’s dimensions a little further amid a story that brings dramatic fervor with quaint set pieces and visuals that establish the film even further. The world we are taken in is dark, gruesome and unrelenting, propelled even more by the presence of our villains, led by Hung. Actors Feng Jia-Yi, Byron Mann and Julius Brian Siswojo all add a little something special to the crop of antagonism we are offered in Chow’s own Wong Fei-Hung universe, allowing To’s script to accumulate with espionage and intrigue, and plot twists and turns that keep you attentive with how intergral they prove to be in the film’s character development.
Actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai makes a cameo as our hero’s father, Wong Key-Ying, early on in the film in flashback scenes that set up the overall essence of our protagonist’s motivations as the film pieces itself together through progression. It adds to the mettle of our heros’ evolving perspective of philosophies on frienship, heroism, courage and redemption, all axioms we explore in some measure not only on both sides of the good and evil spectrum, but among a few of our supporting cast as well, including Angelababy who plays Orchid, a courtesan in love with Wong. And in the course of all this, love stories ensue between our characters that are semi-transparent, but don’t take away from the overall mood and tone of the film set by the dank atmosphere. Wang’s role as Chun, while limited, draws a display of soulfulness and strength next to that of Angelababy whose portrayal of Orchid is one of both tenderness and sagacity, and in a surprising and rewarding fashion.
Other flourishing moments of the film are shared with Boran in the supporting role of Fiery, Wong’s boyhood friend and closest ally, whose performance enhances Wong’s own growth between scenes of levity and upheaval, highlighting a friendship and a sense of brotherhood you truly come to know and care about. Wong Cho-Lam who plays Buck-Tooth, while not heavily present in the film as others are or even in previous films played notably by actors Yuen Biao and Max Mok, is fun to watch when he appears, as well as exciting in the film’s third act. Max Zhang, an actor and martial artist who knows a thing or two when it comes to stunt work, is amply entertaining and showcases a worthwhile blend of acting talent and screenfighting as one of the film’s smaller-written villains opposite Peng.
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Rise Of The Legend is something of a conversation starter. You can debate whether Peng’s is a performance that truly carries on from its predecessors, although there’s no question that he doesn’t hugely echo the same cinematic merit as Li and Chan did more than 20 years ago. Nevertheless and despite all this, the film in its delivery from characters, script and story, to the energy and gravitas emitted by the overall production design, vision and timbre – all accompanied by a worthwhile score from composer Umebayashi Shigeru (Curse Of The Golden Flower, The Grandmaster), boasts a worthy package and some workability for Peng to shine in such a role. In an era of remakes and reboots in film, Wong Fei-Hung’s story is obviously something that wasn’t going to go off the radar in today’s film climate, and obviously not without its share of scruitiny from hardcore fans who have been around since VHS tapes were a thing should a reboot come to fruition.
As such, we get Rise Of The Legend, a film that induces always-needed thoughts and opinions on kung fu cinema for the benefit of its products, and hereto, a product that glimmers with directorial strength, luster and, dare I say it, promise. A film like this wouldn’t have been the least watchable without a good cast and crew, and for this, Chow has earned my respect and attention for granting me a film that I hope advances a sequel.
Rise Of The Legend opens in the U.S. on March 11, 2016 on Digital HD, VoD and in limited theaters. Head over to the official website of Well Go USA for more details.
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