Monday, May 13, 2019

Kung Fu League (2018)

Director: Jeff Lau
Notable Cast: Vincent Zhao, Andy On, Danny Chan, Dennis To, Ashin, Madina Memet, Jay Chou

Kung Fu League is one of those concepts that immediately makes martial arts cinema fans excited. Not only is it a film where they were going to, somehow, get four of the most iconic kung fu folk heroes to team up, but they managed to grab some iconic actors to star (or reprise) these characters – even if it isn’t the most famous stars from the roles. Still, the time travel concept of getting them to team up is just stupid enough to work.  There are some incredible stupid Chinese films that pull of ridiculous concepts, so the prospect that Kung Fu League would work was not out necessarily out of the realm of possibility.

Of course, Kung Fu League is also a film directed by Jeff Lau. Yes, that Jeff Lau that continually gives us some of the stupidest and most gimmicky films the last couple of decades. Just a couple years ago he directed Soccer Killer which went viral for its spoof of various superheroes playing the titular sport. If you haven’t seen that, I highly suggest trying to find that clip. It’s baffling.

Is it all that surprising that Kung Fu League doesn’t work? Probably not. It was nice to think there was a chance, but the film essentially has no reason to exist. The plot resembles this: a young man wants to impress this woman and declare his love for her, but he lacks the courage to and ends up on the bad side of a handsome and rich rival. He prays to his heroes, four iconic kung fu folk legends who he is writing a comic book about, to come to give him the courage. Which, I guess, pulls the heroes into the present. Fish out of water hijinks ensue.

Weirdly enough, the concept isn’t what collapse with the film. It certainly feels a bit like a Disney channel original idea about learning the value of being honest and how heroism is for everyone, but the silliness could have been pulled off if the narrative worked. The film even starts off on the right foot, throwing down a couple of nods to the heroes on hand with a recreation of the rainy opening from The Grandmaster and a leap down memory lane with Vincent Zhao as Wong Fei Hung wooing 13th Aunt. However, it doesn’t take long before the film starts to lose its charm and quickly attempts to throw the various heroes into modern times and have them do ridiculous things. One of those things results in one of the strangest product placements for McDonald’s I have seen outside of the US. Could it have been funny? Maybe. It’s not. The narrative suffers from its unfocused script. There are simply too many characters for it to develop, attempting to parallel the modern day rivalry over a woman with the rivalry for 13th Aunt in ye olden days, and the main plot takes some wild and awkward turns in the third act to attempt to give the audience a big action sequence where one villain could rival all of these folk heroes. Outside of Wong Fei Hung, who is served better in Vincent Zhao’s other return to the character recently in The Unity of Heroes, most of the characters feel like broad jokes with no substance. Not to mention how they seemingly handle Ip Man, reprised by Dennis To from Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, in the strangest way possible. Even a cast as charming and as stacked as this cannot overcome the looming pit of poor writing.

Truthfully, a bad narrative and weak characters can be forgiven in a martial arts film if the action and/or comedy set pieces work. In both cases, Kung Fu League trips on its own feet. It plays all of the action for cheap thrills with cartoonish execution and no sense of real stakes or consequence on hand. There is so much wire work and dodgy CGI that one wonders if Jeff Lau forgot he had so much talent as action stars in the cast. Then the film plays all of the comedy as though it’s the greatest slapstick material ever written. There are a couple of chuckle-worthy moments, but it’s hardly worth the effort of trying to unravel its disjointed and hollow story and characters. Most of the humor is played at the audience’s expense and not for their benefit.

Maybe there is someone out there that believes Kung Fu League is the perfect send-up of these four iconic heroes for a meta-starved young modern audience, but for this reviewer, Jeff Lau’s rather atrocious attempt at undercutting expectations is a dismal reminder that true cinematic power comes from having an audience care. Whether it’s an action or comedy film, a strong sense of character and the narrative is the one thing needed and it’s the one thing that Kung Fu League does not have.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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