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Kung Fu Jungle: Brilliant or a Bust?

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Kung Fu Jungle (2014), starring Donnie Yen, Baoqiang Wang, and Charlie Yeung and directed by Teddy Chan, is a very ambitious movie that attempts to tie together several genres: Classical Kung Fu movies, Modern Hong Kong (HK) Cop Dramas (along similar lines as SPL, Police story,  and Crime Story), suspense-thriller, and mystery.  The film’s unique soundtrack illustrated this merging of genres: much of the music was traditional Chinese music or scores from older Kung Fu movies from the 1970s.   Although the movie was ambitious with its fight sequences, the ending result fell on its face.

The movie began with Hahou Mo, a police self-defense instructor played by Donnie Yen, admitting himself to authorities after killing a man in a challenge match.  A few years later while incarcerated, he notices a unique serial killer, Fung Yu-Sau played by Baoqiang Wang, on the news for murdering his victims in fights and leaving behind a figure of a swallow. Mo seeks Detective Luk Yuen-Sum’s attention, who is in charge of the case, to inform her of the murderer’s next target.  Mo explains the killer’s pattern: he is a martial arts fanatic and psychopath that seeks out death matches with the best masters in boxing, kicking, grappling, weapons, and internal training.  While the premise may not be very believable, it still has hope to be a good martial arts flick.  In my opinion, a good martial arts film does not need an intricate plot – just observe Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee, which was a masterpiece in martial arts cinema – but it does require a sympathetic protagonist, well-choreographed martial arts scenes, and a form of dramatic suspense which moves the story forward and makes the action sequences meaningful (the final fight scene in Kiss of the Dragon starring Jet Li was awesome).

The fight choreography was fairly strong – Yuen Bun, Steven Tung Wei, and Donnie Yen directed the martial arts sequences.  The scenes were a bit rougher and more violent than the 1990s Jet Li fight scenes which featured smoother, clean-cut Modern Wushu and grittier than Jackie Chan movies that used more comedy and less brutality.  Sequences in this movie featured a combination of Modern Wushu, Traditional Wushu or Kung Fu, kickboxing, street fighting, and MMA.  The action is on par with recent Modern Martial Arts Action classics such as SPL, Flashpoint, or Fatal Move, however, it lacks the character buildup and dramatic tension in the fight scenes to really capture the audience.  We are not given the opportunity to better understand Mo’s relationship with Fung nor are we introduced to any of the masters that died during the movie.  For example, there was a real purpose when Jet Li’s character Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend fought General Fujita of Japan to honor the Chinese people and not be labeled as “sick men of Asia” or Jet Li’s character Jun Bo in The Tai Chi Master being forced to fight his Kung Fu brother to the death when they had ended up on opposite sides of the government.  In addition, this film had no comic relief, no romance, no subplots to distract us from the dark, gritty action – think Million Dollar Baby with Kung Fu and cops.  Here is the second challenge match featured in the movie – it is rare that it features Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) and Chin Na (Joint Locking), which is usually not represented in Kung Fu movies because oftentimes these arts are less visually appealing and have fewer practitioners.

Overall, I’d give the movie a C-.  There are rather good action scenes, but the movie lacks decent plot and character development (and that’s by martial arts movies standards).   The fights were simply not meaningful and lacked dramatic tension.  Another movie that blended Classical Kung Fu movies with the Modern Police Drama was Iceman Cometh (1989) starring Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Maggie Cheung.  During ancient times, the two Kung Fu brothers ended up on opposite sides of the law and were frozen for several hundred years during their opening fight.  Similar in concept to Demolition Man (1993) which featured Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone, modern scientists were able to revitalize the bodies in present day and they continued their fight in the city with guns and swords.  It’s a great watch.  I recommend it!  Enjoy the opening fight scene!

Okay, here is an opening scene from Demolition Man in which Wesley Snipes’ character, Simon Phoenix, awakens in the future and terrorizes cops before Sylvester Stallone’s character, John Spartan, is revitalized and thawed out so he can stop him.

Happy viewing and be free to send me your comments and opinions at: chingyinwriting@gmail.com .

Ching-Yin Lee is a former two-time US Wushu team member and coaches at GOSU Institute of Chinese Martial Arts. He had graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland and is set to earn a M.A. in Teaching from the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in December 2015. He can also play Street Fighter II and Tekken very well. If you have a movie that you'd like him to review or have comments, then E-mail at: chingyinwriting@gmail.com .