Let’s be honest – when it comes to martial arts movies, the action is always front and center. If you’re a director, you better be loading your film with graceful choreography, a fury of thrown fists, and plenty of flying mid-air kicks that defy the laws of gravity. We love to watch master craftsmen kicking the absolute tar out of each other. And that’s fine, because unlike gratuitously savage action flicks with bullet-ridden corpses, martial arts is all about technique, beauty, and presentation – but even with that said, some resemblance of a rich story is necessary. It can’t be all sizzle and no steak, but that’s unfortunately what happens to Teddy Chan’s latest genre attempt. Kung Fu Killer is a movie that has plenty of the aforementioned kung fu killing, as advertised, but there’s a serious lack of plotting that makes for a very one-sided experience.
Proven ass-kicker Donnie Yen plays Hahou Mo, a police force martial arts instructor who ends up in jail after accidentally murdering a man. That’s until martial arts masters start being picked off one-by-one, and Hahou becomes the only one who can stop the curious killing spree. By teaming up with the local police force, Hahou begins to track Fung Yu-Sau (Baoqiang Wang), the person responsible for the slew of bodies that litter Hong Kong’s streets. Can Hahou stay one step ahead of Fung Yu-Sau and put an end to his madcap killing spree?
If my review seems sparse of details so far, that’s because Kung Fu Killer doesn’t offer many scripted intricacies worth delving into. In just mere minutes, Hahou introduces himself as the film’s “protagonist” by starting a prison brawl with 17 other inmates who all possess varying levels of martial arts artistry. Hahou is then trusted by Detective Luk Yuen-Sum (Charlie Yeung) without much opposition, mainly because of his repeated situational explanation of “it’s a martial arts thing.” Seriously. The film’s weak structural spine relies completely on a hero who suggests normal citizens couldn’t possibly comprehend this serial fist-fighting case because they’re not part of the cool kids club. Sorry brah, you’re kicks just aren’t furious enough to comprehend this killer’s ingenious plan.
That’s not to say Fung Yu-Sau’s rampage is completely unwarranted, but required scenes of connective plot fillers are treated like boring exchanges of dialogue spurted between rolling tumbleweeds and chirping crickets. Director Teddy Chan can orchestrate an action sequence, he proves that, but it’s his lax grasp of narrative that makes Kung Fu Killer more of a soulless beat-em-up than it deserves to be. There’s nothing about Hahou that stands out past being a man seeking some sort of redemption after accidentally killing someone for some reason – a useless flashback reused over and over again. Baoqiang Wang plays a martial arts master villain with a clubbed foot and a dead wife, yet his motivations are completely characterless. Hell, even the selected specialists aren’t introduced past Fung’s initial pre-fight speech, and their lines are limited to grunts and death groans. Simply put, Kung Fu Killer is the Cro-Magnon of the martial arts genre.
But, because no one seems to care about storytelling, most of the production effort is forcefully thrust into daunting face-offs of martial arts showmanship. Each battle takes place in a unique ring, be it on the weapons specialist’s movie set, or atop the kicking specialist’s human skeleton sculpture, so there’s at least atmospheric intrigue before the first punch is thrown. From here, Yen and company start brutalizing each other with a flurry of lighting fast combos, along the lines of a realistic Street Fighter match. You can’t help but chuckle when an entire movie crew flees as Fung Yu-Sau shows up to challenge the weapons stuntman to a honorable fight, because, I’d like to believe that 30 men could have ended the movie right there by capturing a known criminal. Why do that when Kung Fu Killer can continue for another half-an-hour though, complete with gunfights and broken limbs?!
There’s nothing wrong with a relentless assault of gratuitous action now and then. Look at The Raid. Gareth Evans’ brutally violent opus built a fanbase on mesmerizing displays of Pencak Silat, as Mad Dog and Rama turn concrete into ruble under the weight of each punishing blow. But more than that, we care about Rama’s journey, get hypnotized by the fight choreography, and are left with raging levels of testosterone when the credits roll.
In comparison, Kung Fu Killer is The Raid‘s the bastard stepbrother. It tries to mimic the badass success of its big brother, but comes up short in almost every way. The characters are nothing but deadly ballerinas without defining characteristics, the one character who DOES have personality finds it horridly overlooked, and the painfully generic story doesn’t demand even a second of our attention (nor is it paid any attention). Sure, there’s bone-crushing action, but all that intensified effort is canceled out by an absolutely lackluster handling of every other cinematic component. Then again, maybe that’s just because none of us are martial artists, and, after all, this is martial arts business – how could we possibly understand?