A former World Kickboxing Champion and United States Marine Corps combat instructor, German-born filmmaker Lexi Alexander worked her way up from stunt woman to Oscar-nominated director with her live action short film Johnny Flynton, a drama about a boxer. She has helmed feature films including the SXSW Jury & Audience Award-winning drama Green Street Hooligans, Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone and the acclaimed military drama Lifted. Alexander has since ventured into television; her current show, The Detail, is now in development.
When kind social media peers made me aware of the Kung Fu Killer trailer, knowing that I am — and always have been — a massive fan of the martial arts genre, my heart skipped a beat at the sight of Donnie Yen raging through a fast-paced kung fu extravaganza with a seemingly simple but brilliant plot.
The movie didn’t quite meet the high expectations raised by an expertly cut trailer, but nevertheless, Kung Fu Killer’s action and fights scenes will go down as some of the best in Hong Kong cinema’s history.
As someone who grew up as a competitive fighter, and spent the majority of her teenage years with fellow martial artists traveling from one tournament to another on a bus with a small black-and-white TV which screened every martial arts movie ever made on a 24-hour loop, I am certain about one thing: Coming up with a great plot for a kung fu movie is not an easy task.
What we as the audience want from a martial arts movie is a hero who kicks as much ass as possible, but who has a rock-hard, justifiable reason for doing so because, even more than in the regular hero’s journey myth, in martial arts the letter of the law is that a true fighter avoids fighting at all costs. So the first act has to include some kind of inciting incident which convinces an audience well-versed in martial arts that this hero has every right in the world to forego turning the other cheek and go bat-shit crazy on the antagonist.
But Lord have mercy, how many times can we see someone’s brother getting killed in the ring, someone’s wife and daughter getting blown up or, in some cases, kidnapped, all in order to blackmail the hero into participating in some type of underground fighting event? It gets old really fast.
So a storyline in which a psychotic kung fu Grandmaster is going all Highlander on the other living Grandmasters because “there can only be one” is a fantastic plot idea. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Killer’s script is riddled with plot holes and fails to deliver on this fantastic idea, but I’m not sure the filmmakers really cared.
First and foremost, the movie serves as an ode to Hong Kong martial arts and cinema. From contemporary fighting performers like Xing Yu and Fan Siu-wong and old school masters Yuen Cheung-yan and Lau Kar-leung to accomplished artists of Hong Kong cinema like Andrew Lau, Soi Cheang, Bruce Law and Derek Kwok, the movie pays respect by featuring them in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos or name-checks them in the credits. This is beyond cool for diehard fans of the genre like myself, but how this plays for people who won’t recognize these easter eggs? I wonder.
Wang Baoqiang, in the role of the psychotic Grandmaster Fung Yu-Sau, steals the show from star Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo, not only with brief but brutally fast fight scenes but also with impressive acting chops.
As one of two well-written ladies, Michelle Bai plays Hahou’s love interest, Sinn Ying, but not in a gooey-eyed lover’s kind of way. Sinn Ying displays mad sword-fighting skills on her own and refuses to be the damsel in distress, opting instead to sneak away and challenge the bad guy herself, in an effort to save her beloved’s life.
I am always stunned when I see how filmmakers working in Asian action cinema manage to write fully fledged, three-dimensional, interesting female characters in movies that are still considered “male-driven” fare, while their Hollywood equivalents are seemingly unable to do so. The other well-written leading lady is Charlie Young, who plays Luk Yuen-Sum, the detective in charge of the task force tracking down Baoqiang’s psychotic grand master Fung. She delivers a subtle but confident performance as a determined woman on a mission.
Donnie Yen protégé Yu Kang stuns in a grappling fight scene, while Donnie himself starts off with a fast-paced and fun brawl against a gang of inmates led by the legendary Mang Hoi. But he doesn’t really get in on the fighting action until an absolutely stunning set piece on Lantau Island, where he and Wang Baoqiang chase and fight each other on boats and stilt houses. It’s an amazing piece of action, only topped by a final fight that could easily become one of the top five in the genre. A grueling, merciless, brutal assault of kicking, boxing, grappling and staff-fighting on the motorway, which moves not only among cars and trucks speeding by, but also under them (yes, as in fighting under moving cars). It reminds us why Hong Kong action cinema deserves continuing worldwide respect.
As a martial arts movie fan, you get used to letting a lot of things slide that one might find unforgivable in other action movies. I guess we’re just used to being underwhelmed by plot and story and won’t complain as long as the fight scenes deliver. But in the case of Kung Fu Killer, it really bugs me that the filmmakers were so careless with the script, because the idea was so good.
For example, we have a killer who is on a mission to take out five kung fu Grandmasters and by the time we find this out, he has already killed one of them. That is a great “ticking clock” device, but the film ruins it by refusing to acknowledge that there are forms of communication by which the potential victims could be warned. For a moment, I thought that the filmmakers might have opted to play this in an old-world time and space where people don’t have (or opt not to use?) cell phones — but that idea was shattered when Detective Luk Yuen-Sum rides to a crime scene on her motorcycle and suddenly makes a call on an iPhone/bluetooth set-up that is better than any phone system I’ve ever managed to get going on my bike. Come on now!
Nevertheless, all this is instantly forgotten as soon as the score speeds up, the kung fu Grandmasters face off and all hell breaks lose in fast-paced “BSHH,” “PAH,” “HIYAAAH,” “BSHHH,” “PAH,” “PAH,” “WHUA,” “PAH,” “WHAAA.”