A moderately entertaining martial arts take on the serial killer procedural.
Kung Fu Killer
Teddy Chan’s martial arts crime movie Kung Fu Killer is like the Hong Kong industry’s version of an NBA All-Star Game: It’s fun to watch the best-of-the-best whoop on each other, but it’s also a largely low-stakes affair with few long-term implications. Boasting a packed roster of Hong Kong legends, the film is a gauntlet exhibition of martial arts mayhem, but it leaves a lot to be desired in the style department: Though well choreographed, the fight scenes are shot in a way that feels pedestrian when compared to the Raid series or The Grandmaster. It’s a kung fu smorgasbord brimming with action that somehow still leaves your stomach rumbling.
The movie is structured as a serial killer procedural, the killer in question played by Wang Baoqiang. He’s a multi-disciplined martial arts master who’s hunting down the best single-disciplined masters (e.g. kickboxing, grappling, weaponed) and beating them at their own game (Mr. Weapons gets his throat slit; Mr. Grappler gets thrown out a window). It’s sort of like a Game of Death role reversal: instead of a hero hunting down baddies one by one, it’s a baddie picking off (and apart) the good guys. The killer’s back story is a cluster of clichés (like the rest of the movie), his defining characteristic being his club foot which he’s disciplined himself to use to his advantage in combat. Other than that, he’s nothing more than a store brand psycho.
He picks off the martial arts experts like cherries from a cherry tree, and the only one who can stop him is…Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But that would hardly be a fair fight, so instead we get normal person-sized ass-kicker and Ip Man star Donnie Yen, who plays kung fu instructor Hahou Mo. Locked up in prison for involuntary manslaughter, Mo is given an opportunity at freedom by a plucky police detective (Charlie Yeung, turning in the movie’s best non-combat performance) who enlists him to track down the hobbling killer and fight him to the death.
The plot is a thin-as-rice-paper excuse to zip from one fight scene to the next. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World comes to mind as the killer confronts each of the fighters on his list in their coincidentally cool-looking natural habitats. Baoqiang fights the martial artists (each played by a wushu flick regular making a quick cameo) in a cramped tattoo parlor, on top of a giant hanging skeleton art exhibit, on an action movie set (ha ha), and high above the city streets, in the obligatory rooftop chase/fight set piece. Each set is a fun playground for the actors to have fun with and get inventive, but they all feel contrived and cheesy looking, like stages pulled straight out of Street Fighter II.
The climactic final battle between Mo and the killer is fought in the middle of a busy street at night, cars and big rigs zooming by as the blitzing warriors duck, dive and dodge around the traffic, throwing cyclonic strikes all the while. The fight choreography is elaborately staged and undeniably impressive both athletically and artistically, but the way everything is filmed feels a bit detached; the camera spins and swirls and dives in and out of the action, but it never gets intimate enough with the violence. Despite terribly violent things happening all the time, none of it feels as brutal or pulverizing as it should. We should wince and squirm when people get sliced by a sword or shot in the gut, but Kung Fu Killer elicits no such reaction.
I’m admittedly far (very, very far) from a wushu movie aficionado, but the wire work Chan’s movie at times looks ridiculous to me. Instead of accentuating natural movements, the actors just dart from side to side, up and down, barely using their feet. I’m not against stretching the laws of gravity at all (I usually think it looks awesome), but there are moments in Kung Fu Killer when the actors look like they’re being tugged around by giant invisible hands. It’s a preference thing; after watching the smash-mouth action in the Ong-bak and Raid series, floaty wire work just feels more sterile and unexciting to me. Maybe it’s a phase, or maybe I’m just a no-good noob, but I would have liked to see Chan and his team get their hands a little dirtier.