Saturday, June 23, 2007

Kung Fu Night! Legend of the Red Dragon

Did I just watch a kung fu rip-off of House of Wax?

Legend of the Red Dragon, written and directed by Wong Jing. Starring Jet Li, Yau Shuk Ching, Danie Ip, and Tse Miu. Running time 83 minutes. Rated R for violence.

As the film opens, Hung Hei-Kwun (Jet Li) has returned home to find his entire village killed by the corrupt imperial dynasty. His best friend shows up, but as it turns out, this friend has turned traitor. After a brutal wire-fu battle, Kwun leaves said friend stabbed in the gut and seriously burned. Kwun takes his young son and trains him in gravity-defying martial arts. They end up as bodyguards for a comedic wealthy man who's in the process of being robbed blind by his fiancée and her mother, who are actually con artists. On top of that, the evil government has burned the Shaolin temple in order to find five boys with a treasure map tattooed on their backs. On top of that, Kwun's old friend is back; he's been healed by a witch, though he's still horribly burned and goopy; he's now invincible, drives around in a funky armored car, and can tear people in half with his metal hands. On top of that, there's a creepy Shaolin master who dips people in molten wax for no reason whatsoever, and on top of that, there's a lot of eye-popping, impressively inventive wire-fu combined with plenty of corny humor, altogether making a movie that's nearly incomprehensible but nonetheless tons of fun. (And in case you were wondering, the evil mutilated guy does indeed fall in the vat of wax at the end.)

Buried in the midst of the typically crazy, revenge-centered plot is that weird House of Wax stuff. Are they trying to pay homage or just steal ideas? House of Wax, in case you didn't know, features Vincent Price as a horribly burned wax sculptor who can no longer sculpt because of the damage to his hands. Nevertheless, he can still swing around on house roofs at night in order to kidnap people and dip them in wax for his museum, and he can even punch out multiple opponents in a grand battle royale. So, Legend of the Red Dragon has a burn victim, a vat of molten wax, and people dipped in wax--I don't think this is a coincidence.

If you want to attempt watching this, just make sure, as with most historical fantasy kung fu movies, that your brain is switched firmly to the off position. Don't try to figure it out because it probably doesn't make sense anyway. The action is good, and the cinematography and editing, considering the low budget, are smooth and keep the acrobatic, physics-defying stunts easy to follow. Now if only the script were so easy.

Speaking of the script, I wonder if the weird, anachronistic dialogue is present in the original or is only in the English dubbing. Lines like "Bring it on, you sons of b***es" and "I'm going to make sure that bastard is done for" don't sound to me very, you know, nineteenth centuryish. Or Chinese.

There isn't a lot of religion or philosophy in this. We get the message that corrupt governments who heartlessly kill their own people are bad, but no duh. There's some chivalrous honor code stuff in here, but it's one of those rough and tough honor codes, and sometimes it's presented with irony or scary intensity. "Remember, there's nothing more important than family," Kwun tells his son shortly before skewering his own brother. At the movie's beginning, he offers his infant son opportunity to join him in his fight against the government or die on the spot. Nice. After that, we have a total of six young boys constantly engaging in kung fu fights against seriously nasty villains. I'm going to give this points off for child endangerment.

From what I've seen, Jet Li's movie personas are three in number. He plays the cute, likable, innocent, bumbling, callow youth who happens to be a kung fu master. He plays the (*snicker*) street-wise hip-hop gagsta who happens to be a kung fu master. Or masta. Or something. And lastly, he plays Jet Li trying very hard to be a creepy deadpan guy who happens to be a kung fu master. He's playing the latter in this movie, as is the young boy playing his son. They are hilarious.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Legend of the Red Dragon:

Myth Level: High (wire-fu, historical fantasy setting, wire-fu, revenge story, wire-fu)

Quality: Medium-High (can I say it's high quality if I can't understand it?)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (chivalrous honor code coupled with child endangerment and some potentially disturbing violent images)
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