My first introduction to Donnie Yen was in the post-Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon boom of Yuen Woo-Ping choreography. The film that brought Yen to my attention was Iron Monkey, which had been lightly trimmed from its original cut, and cultivated to a more American style - eg. the contact sound effects were made more realistic, the humor was toned down, speed ramping was removed. Unlike the cultural behemoth of Jackie Chan, Yen's film was marketed around the fighting style, and not the star. It wasn't until Ip Man became a Netflix darling that Yen gained an in-name connection with a larger American audience, and even so, he exists in a niche market. Without the charisma of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, and with the martial arts film market now pushing the choreography exclusively (we all know The Raid, but few can name Iko Uwais), Donnie Yen will stay a niche player, which I think helps and hurts his latest offering, Kung Fu Killer. My point is, Yen kicks ass, but unlike a Jackie Chan, he could be replaced by a hundred different martial artists and the movie would be the same.
Kung Fu Killer is a very basic story: A serial killer is hunting down grandmasters of different fighting styles and forcing them into a fight to the death. In an effort to stop him, the cops conditionally bust disgraced grandmaster Hahou Mo (Yen) out of jail to end the carnage. Karate happens.
Kung Fu Killer succeeds in balancing just about every fight choreography style I mentioned above - it has the wire work of Crouching Tiger, the flashy dancing of Chan, the tactical precision of Li, and the grimy brutality of The Raid - and does so in a distinctly old school fashion - sound effects are exaggerated to the point where a light slap sounds like a plane crash; there is talk of honor, vengeance, "I swore I'd never do Hamster Style", etc. You know, old school stuff. All of this works very well, and when met on its own terms, Kung Fu Killer (appropriately being released for a midnight screening here in Philly) works like gangbusters. With a good crowd and a proper mindset, it is sure to be an absolute blast.
Shame about the story, though. This is hardly a complaint. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the frenetic urgency of The Raid and hard-boiled gangster saga of The Raid 2, but Kung Fu Killer's plot is simply the loosest possible framework in which to contain fight sequences. As I previously stated, on its own terms this is absolutely fine and it could even be argued that anything more could have been too much, however, I'm at the point where a fight scene needs to have weight for me to enjoy it on a level beyond spectacle, which doesn't happen until the very last moments of the film (but when it does happen - holy shnikes, it's fantastic stuff).
Kung Fu Killer is everything it needs and promises to be, nothing more, nothing less.
Kung Fu Killer plays for one night only at the Ritz Bourse on Friday, May 1.