Donnie Yen returns to the big screen in Kung Fu Jungle, in the well-worn guise of a skilled martial artist brought low, doggedly chasing down a brilliant but broken adversary. Not that he’s been away for long; arguably the last big action star standing from Hong Kong’s golden years, he’s been working harder than ever, turning in a couple of huge films every year since the early 2000s, often as action choreographer as well.
In this film, director Teddy Chen Tak Sum (who worked with Yen in his last film, 2009’s Bodyguards and Assassins) delivers an homage to Hong Kong’s action cinema tradition, filling the screen with images of HK’s heroes and casting familiar faces from Golden Harvest founder Raymond Chow to Shaws superstar David Chiang in bit parts, making for an entertaining game of spot the legend.
Donnie Yen plays Ha-hou Mo, a talented martial artist who has worked for some time for the HK police as an instructor. At the opening of the film, we see him stagger into the police station in Central, dripping in blood, and announce to the duty officers that he’s killed someone, accidentally. Ha-hou Mo is incarcerated for his crime — killing his opponent accidentally in a duel — and remains a model prisoner, until one day when a murder is reported on the news. The victim was a skilled boxer, killed using the very discipline that he was an expert in, and our hero convinces the police that it’s only the beginning… and they’ll need his help to identify the next victim.
Together with coolly competent, tough-as-nails detective Luk Yuen-sum (Charlie Yeung), who’s initially suspicious that Ha-hou Mo is just looking for an early release, they chase the killer as he targets martial artists around Hong Kong. In contrast to some films that follow this structure, we’re introduced to the villain early on: it’s not his identity that’s a mystery, it’s his background and motivation. Played by a grimacing, menacingly efficient Wang Baoqiang, he’s the archetypical furious, unstoppable maniac of HK action cinema: think Yuen Wah in The Iceman Cometh, or Wu Jing in SPL.
Director Teddy Chen does do some iteration on the comfortingly familiar design of this sort of film, though. Echoing recent Chinese films that play with how flashbacks and investigative theories are presented on screen (as in Peter Chan’s Wu Xia, Lo Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes or Johnnie To’s Mad Detective), we see Donnie Yen’s thought processes play out as he moves around a scene, shifting between his point of view, an omniscient flashback, and a composite of the two. Detective Luk and her police force are played straight, as competent and efficient officers of the law — I don’t think I’ve heard so many officers say “Yes, Madam!” since the HK action flicks of the late 80’s — merely out of their depth dealing with the affairs of the martial arts world. Michelle Bai also pops up, under-written as love interest (and reason for the characters to visit Foshan) Sinn Ying.
The action design will look familiar to anyone who’s been watching Donnie Yen’s work over the last decade: he draws from diverse influences and styles, especially here where the sequences follow a progression of sorts. Most of the players here are experienced action stars in their own right (such as Shi Yanneng and Louis Fan Siu-Wong) but it was a surprise to me to see just how well Wang Baoqiang handled his lion’s share of the action. I had unfairly pigeonholed him as a comedian who’d done some light action sequences in Badges of Fury, but he really does look great in this film. It turns out that he studied for several years at the Shaolin Temple as a child, and he’s clearly making a play for more action roles: it looks like he’s attached to Iceman 2 and Chen Kaige’s The Monk already.
In keeping with its dedication to HK’s action cinema history, the fight sequences in Kung Fu Jungle travel around Hong Kong, from the teeming buildings of Mongkok to the fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island. Though it doesn’t deliver anything groundbreaking, it’ll entertain the hell out of HK action fans and it builds to a stripped-down, thoroughly satisfying final fight. Stay for the credit sequence to see all those faces you should have recognised.