Martial arts is for killing.
PopGap #26: Kung Fu Jungle (2014)
Of the great Hong Kong-based kung fu and action movie stars of the past 35 years, Donnie Yen seems like the grown-up of the bunch. He's not a self-jeopardizing clown (Jackie Chan), a boyish upstart struggling to tame his raw power (Jet Li), or an emotional wildman expressing himself in bursts of orgiastic gunplay (Chow Yun-Fat). Yen is serious, quiet, rarely ruffled, and never wants to fight. He looks and acts like someone's conservative and clean-cut dad. 2014's Kung Fu Jungle, directed by Teddy Chan, is Yen's 59th movie, but he looks mostly the same 30 years later as he did in 1993's Iron Monkey, maybe with a touch more gray. His style is appealingly sober and direct, which works well for this simple mash-up of the kung-fu and serial killer genres.
Yen stars as Hahou Mo, a martial arts master serving time for a rare lapse of self-control during which he killed someone. When other martial arts experts — mostly retired now and pursuing other careers — are targeted by a murderer (Wang Baoqiang) with a keen understanding of their skills and practices, Mo offers his expertise to the police Inspector (Charlie Young) to help find the killer in exchange for his own release. There isn't very much to Kung Fu Jungle. Yen is a man of few words and even fewer expressions and there's little mystery to the killer's identity or motivations. The plot is an excuse for a series of martial arts battles focusing on different disciplines: leg work, grappling, weapons, etc. The action is fast and fierce, especially the fantastic final showdown, with Yen picking up yet another (his 8th) Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography, and all of the performances are solid and mature within the script's limited range. There is very little nonsense in Kung Fu Jungle and it's a satisfying low-key thriller with a novel premise.
I found Chan's visual scheme for Kung Fu Jungle a little distracting. The oversaturated colors look good at times, but, coupled with a few sets that seemed art-directed-by-CGI, there was an overall atmosphere of fakeness that undercut the impact of the fight scenes, particularly the one featuring Louis Fan (of Riki-Oh fame). It would seem that a grittier, more naturalistic approach would've better served both the subject matter and Yen's reserved performance style. Not being an attentive student of Hong Kong action cinema, I missed the parade of cameos from notable Hong Kong movie industry figures throughout Kung Fu Jungle until the recap during the end credits, at which point I recognized the names if not the faces of less than a handful. Maybe it's a little bit odd for such a light-hearted and sentimental tribute to beloved movie insiders to feature at the end of a movie about the murders of beloved martial arts insiders, but it's a nice gesture all the same.
Kung Fu Jungle was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Rick Winters, who can be found at Flickchart under the username AudreyKarloff. He ranks it on his chart at #551 / 2602 (79%) and his sixth favorite out of 22 Donnie Yen movies. Kung Fu Jungle ranked on my Flickchart at #1711 / 3762 (55%), where it's my fourth favorite of the four good-to-very-good Donnie Yen movies I've seen.
My Top 5 Martial Arts Movies
Notes on Kung Fu Jungle (2014)
Kung Fu Killer; Yi ge ren de wu lin
As movies are added to this list, I'll add them to Letterboxd, here: