Lionsgate // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // October 12th, 2010
Hero. Warrior. Savior.
O merciful Buddha.
The warlord General Wang and his ruthless nephew Renza are plotting to overthrow the emperor. To do that, they need to recruit an exceptional martial artist as their new drillmaster to whip their army into shape. Master Tan Zong (Yuen Biao, Shanghai Express) declines the offer because his role as a Shaolin monk forbids him from taking sides in such a power play. When news spreads that the region's best martial arts schools have been wiped out, Tan Zong journeys to Wang's stronghold to find answers. Accompanied by his apprentice, a fat simpleton with a hard head, Tan Zong faces numerous enemies and traps that test his mastery of Shaolin kung fu.
Based on a legendary figure of Shaolin lore and historical events in China circa 621, the story of Tan Zong was filmed as a television series for broadcast in 2009. Fans of martial arts films were excited about the project starring Yuen Biao -- he trained with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung but has not garnered the same level of fame despite his considerable talents -- titled Legend of Shaolin Kung Fu 2: 13 Cudgel Monks, the middle portion of a 120-episode series. I'm assuming that means the original story was told over 40 episodes. Now it has been condensed down to 95 minutes for the movie Kung-Fu Master. I can't say whether or not the full series is worth searching for, but what scenes are assembled on this DVD do not suggest it gets much better in long form.
The plot consists of Tan Zong walking to Wang's castle and meeting various foes along the way. He walks through a village and fights hired goons, enters a building and fights thugs, continues through a tunnel and fights other villains...you get the idea. The script supplies minimal dialogue but any story or character complexity would just delay the next fight scene and this movie aspires to nothing more than a series of fight scenes. Occasionally we see Wang plotting while he waits for Tan Zong to arrive but even he gets so bored that at one point he challenges his guards to a fight to break up the monotony.
Yuen Biao is a gifted martial arts actor and he's totally convincing throughout the movie. His stoic monk is short on words aside from reflexively chanting "O merciful Buddha" before and after he administers a beating. He plays it straight but it seems like he's the only one taking this story seriously. Everyone else plays his part with melodramatic glee that it's impossible to believe anything's at stake. The bad guys cackle, they really do, and if they had moustaches they'd twirl them too.
It looks like the production's budget prioritized the fight scenes and that's plainly evidenced by the endless horde of stuntmen employed in the climactic showdown when Tan Zong and his Shaolin brothers storm the castle. The rest of the production looks cheap with its Chinese villages, castle courtyards, costumes and rubber weapons all looking very standard issue. The Chinese studio back lot appearance takes all threat out of the violence. Though the action is staged with a lot of energy, it doesn't feel like anyone is at risk of getting hurt. Characters spit blood when they're defeated because that's how you know they're really beaten but it's more of a formality than a shock.
The cheap look of the production isn't helped by the cinematography or the technical presentation of the disc. There is a blue colorcast over the image, which is probably meant to give the movie a cold, gloomy atmosphere. It just looks like a blue filter was added to give the movie a visual style (any style) that might make it more interesting. The picture on the DVD is busy with fine digital noise. It appears to be shot on video, which is sharp most of the time, but finer details are rendered poorly resulting in shimmering where strands of hair, smooth diagonals and embroidered patterns on clothing should appear.
Both audio options are presented in an unnecessary Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The repetitive notes of the tense music cue are shared in the rear speakers but otherwise the soundscape is entirely frontal. Aside from the minimal dialogue required by the script, the soundtrack consists mostly of stock sound effects. The grunts, cries of pain, metallic clangs and impact sounds are clearly a limited few used over and over. The English-dubbed audio option has the voice cast reading the subtitles (or maybe the subtitles are just the English language script) with energy that closely approximates the Mandarin language version.
The only extra is a trailer that takes the cake for lazy trailers. The first shot used in the trailer is the final shot of the movie. They forgot to put the words "Spoiler Alert" at the head of it.
Fans of Yuen Biao will no doubt want to know if this disc is still worth checking out for the fight scenes. If you can look past the silly costumes (there's a band of baddies with sacks over their heads and another adversary who wears a green rubber mask) and the sense that no one is in real danger, the action is plenty exciting at times. The fight choreography by Yuen Bun is fast and only a few times does it rely too much on outlandish wire-fu tricks. Though some scenes tend to be made up of tight angles and quick edits, at least the flow of the action is coherent. On the wide angle shots you can appreciate the agility and skill of Yuen Biao and the stuntmen. While it borders on being silly, the fight staging also deserves credit for trying to keep things fresh with unusual weapons. One gang of opponents is armed with umbrellas and an entire brigade of soldiers appears to be trained in the deadly art of attacking with benches.
This is not the kung fu DVD for you if you want to see the big budget spectaculars helmed by internationally acclaimed filmmakers. Kung-Fu Master is an edited down version of a TV serial. It may not even be the best parts of the series but it's a lot of the action parts and it almost works as a self-contained, shortened narrative. If you just want to see some martial arts action this may be worth your time if you skip directly to the good parts.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Kung Fu Cinema Article