We’re back with two more kung-fu flick reviews to close out our inaugural Kung Fu-bruary. (The month went by quick, no?)
Kung Fu League from 2018 takes a typical plot of a sad-sack nerd dreamer guy who has fantasies of overcoming the bully, escaping his mundane life and getting the girl — a tale as old as James Thurber’s story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the 1947 flick adaptation of the same, or if you wanna get slightly more modern, Weird Science, Some Kind of Wonderful or even, to some extent, Can’t Hardly Wait.
For anyone who wants to do a script, the formula goes: Sad sack with zero privilege wants something (success, a relationship, chicken nuggets). There’s an obstacle (the bully, rich jerk or the system). They seek third-party intervention (the classmate, the co-worker, the fictional robot girlfriend they create a la Dr. Frankenstein) and after going through some challenges, eventually figure out that really, the whole key to them getting what they wanted in the first place was inside them after all.
The plot smooshes together four traditional martial arts heroes Master Wong (Wenzhuo Zhao, playing a Wing Chung master who’s been the key hero in long-running series of martial arts movies); Chen Zhen (Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan, playing Bruce Lee’s historical hero from Fist of Fury); Ip Man (Yu-Hang To, playing Bruce Lee’s martial arts instructor, who’s been the hero in a recent series of flicks) and Huo Yianjia (Andy On, playing another martial arts master who’s inspired a few movies, including Jet Li’s Fearless).
Having a lack of knowledge of the complete backstories of the kung-fu heroes might detract a bit from the richness or “wow” factor for Western audiences watching. Best way to look at it is kind of like putting together a bunch of public-domain heroes in a flick — Tarzan meets Sherlock Holmes meets Van Helsing meets Calamity Jane. This flick has a little bit of a martial arts “supercrew unites” feel to it — like the Marvel Avengers flicks or DC’s Justice League.
Kung Fu League starts with a guy in a white fedora named Fei Ying Xiong (Ashin) fighting a bunch of guys who’d abducted a girl, Bao’er (Madina Memet), in a big old rainstorm in a city’s streets. Some dude jumps through the glass of a fourth-floor window and breaks both his ankles, then a bad guy in one of those Russian fur hats with a sword kicks a horse cart at Fei.
They both kick the cart at the same time and it collapses. Then they all do some flaily martial arts in the rain before Fei kicks the Russian hat guy into this huge wrought-iron gate, knocking it down, and then Fei laughs in triumph as his enemies give up the fight and he gets the girl.
But, see, it was all a comic book and the cartoonist guy, Fei, after finishing his book, “Kung Fu Alliance” decides to write a love note to the woman at work whom he has a crush on. He bumps into Bao’er who is THE GIRL.
Master Wong, Master Huo, Chen Zhen and Ip Man travel through time in the comic, which Bao’er likes. But then, the president of the company, Zhang Peng, takes over Bao’er’s attention A manager guy sees Fei put the note in Bao’er’s bag and accuses him of being a thief. Fei exits the office, suitably embarrassed, then goes to this circle of fountains later that night, rage yells at the characters he wrote his comic about asking em why they aren’t helping him get the girl, wonders aloud why the rich guy always gets the girl and says that because it’s his birthday, the kung-fu masters should grant his wish and come help him in his quest to woo Bao’er.
Pretty straightforward plot, the martial arts legends get sucked up from their respective time periods into a movie studio, fight with one another, go through some fish-out-of-water scenarios — taking their horses on public transit, trying to order at a McDonald’s and running into Bao’er, who gives them money because she feels sorry for them. There’s a good fight with about 25 or so thieves in their lair, some intrigue since Huo was having an affair with Wong’s betrothed (maybe), and then a big baddie Qiao Shanhu (Siu-Lung Leung, who was the Beast in the four-star classic Kung Fu Hustle and also appeared in flicks as Bruce Liang, Bruce Leong and Bruce Leung) shows up.
Eventually the four heroes hook up with Fei and mentor him, although if we’re REAL honest about it here, the manipulative Fei’s a pretty unsympathetic protagonist until there’s a tonal shift and they play the “evil, selfish business guy blackmails the underdog by paying for the ailing cousin’s surgery” card.
Best Duel Between Hungry Men: Ip Man and Master Huo fight briefly with chopsticks over who gets the last wonton in the bowl.
Best Mastery of Nunchucks: Chen Zhen depantses six thieves in a fight with his. He also habitually takes his shirt off right before he’s going to fight. Every time.
Best ‘That’s the Joke’ Joke: A crazy director comes up to Master Wong saying that he’ll sign him to an action contract and make him into the next Wenzhuo Zao when Master Wong is being played by Wenzhuo Zao.
Best Thing I Never Thought I’d See: Ip Man and Chen Zhen do karaoke and Master Wong pounds a REALLY big shooter at a bar.
Best Exit: When embarrassed in the office lunchroom, Fei just walks through a plate glass divider, no cuts or anything.
Best Quick Fix to Achieve Kung-Fu Mastery in Less Than 30 Years, According to Ip Man: You’ve gotta physically force open up three chi channels and your crown, third eye, throat, heart, solar plexus, abdomen and root chakras so then you’ll be able to throw an elephant with one hand and cross a river on a reed leaf.
Best Insult and Plot Summary Combined: The lead thug defends Fei: “Here you are just four losers — you have no money, no car, no house … Help him win the tournament, he gets the girl, they date and you return to your own time.”
Best Threat to Avoid Dishonor: “I will cut you up and feed you to dogs!”
The kung-fu in Kung Fu League employs more fantasy, stylized Wire Fu – presenting the physical combat as stylized and acrobatic rather than brutal and violent, in contrast to the last Fu flick we looked at, Triple Threat. In all honesty, this flick is a live action kung-fu “Superfriends” episode with that whole wish-fulfillment thing plot mixed in as well – very little blood (Wong has a gushing wrist wound at one point and there are a couple of bloody faces), but it really could be suitable for kids when it comes down to it.
Two and a half stars.
Check out Kung Fu League streaming on TubiTV, Pluto TV or Hoopla or it’s available on physical media as well.