On paper, this seemed like such a good idea – The Expendables of kung fu movies.
Get four of the most well-known characters of Chinese martial arts saga, each portrayed by a promising young action star, and put them on screen together in a comedy-action blockbuster.
What could go wrong?
Well, plenty, apparently, as can be seen with Jeffrey Lau’s Kung Fu League.
The film squanders a ton of star power and a winning premise to produce something serviceable but forgettable: an average film that could have been great. In other words, this shared-universe fighting flick could have been an Asian Avengers. Instead, Kung Fu League feels more like the Justice League movie. Urgh.
And the movie starts rather promisingly too. It opens with a rather stylish group-fight in the rain; we soon learn, however, that this is the fantasy of the geeky Fei Yingxiong (Ashin Shu), a comic artist who is in love with his colleague, Bao Er (Madina Mamet.) Bao Er, however, is also fancied by Zhang Peng (Steven Zhang), a fellow colleague who is better than Yingxiong in every way.
Frustrated, Yingxiong makes a wish, which comes true because it’s his birthday.
Four legendary Chinese martial arts heroes are plucked from the past and sent to the present to help him. They are Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung (Vincent Zhao, who played the character in the Once Upon A Time In China films and TV series), Wing Chun champion Ip Man (Dennis To, who played the character in The Legend Is Born – Ip Man film), martial artist Huo Yuan Jia (Andy On) and fictional character Chen Zhen, who was played by Bruce Lee in Fist Of Fury (here played by Danny Chan).
As it conveniently turns out, a major wushu competition is being held, and Yingxiong requests for the four heroes to train him to win (and by extension, impress the girl of his dreams).
Complications, however, arise, as Wong Fei Hung learns that the woman he loves back home has not been faithful to him. And to make things worse, she might be cheating on him with one of the heroes!
Director Lau is known for his over-the-top comedy action: these include Just Another Pandora’s Box, Chinese Odyssey 2002 and All For The Winner.
Kung Fu League, therefore, is high on slapstick antics. While this can be a bit of an acquired taste, most of the jokes land well.
The legendary four’s attempts to blend in with contemporary times are hilarious, and the banter between them is nice. The cast also generally puts on decent performances, particularly the ones playing the four legendary masters.
The film, however, is a bit of a letdown in every other aspect.
There is only one great fight scene – where Wong Fei Hung takes on another challenger (no spoilers who it is), in a climactic, no-holds barred clash that is awesomely scored to A Man Must Strengthen Himself (a.k.a. the Wong Fei Hung theme song).
The other fight scenes are too short or too comedic to really make an impact. And the climax… man. You’d think that in a film called Kung Fu League, the climax would involve the Kung Fu League in question? Instead, the final big fight goes to another character, which is nice, but honestly not exactly what most of us came to see.
Characterisation is also weak. The only fighter who is given much of a character arc is Wong Fei Hung, who is unsurprisingly the best character in the movie. Other characters, Chen Zhen in particular, have little to do except provide punchlines. The villain seems like he has walked out of a cartoon. And there is also a bizarre, anti-climactic twist involving one of the fighters, which makes you wonder why that character is even in the movie to begin with.
And let’s not start on the love story between Yingxiong and Bao Er. Their relationship manages to be the most unrealistic thing in this movie about time-travelling kung fu masters.
Bao Er has no purpose in this movie except to be fought over by two men. The way Yingxiong courts her is incredibly clichéd and contrived. By the time the film gets to its “Big Romantic Moment”, sappy song playing at full volume, you’ll be wishing for a swift punch by Master Wong Fei Hung to the face, if only so you can black out and be spared from the agony.
Overall, however, this is not a bad film. It just has a very average feel about it, a rare misstep from the usually dependable Lau. Which is a pity, as the movie has a great cast, including some of the most promising action stars.
Perhaps a bit more polish is needed. As it is, however, this Kung Fu League sadly doesn’t pack a punch.
Catch this movie at Golden Screen Cinemas nationwide. Follow GSC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Kung Fu League
Director: Jeffrey Lau
Cast: Vincent Zhao, Andy On, Danny Chan, Dennis To