Some movies come out with concept that seem almost too amazing to fail. Yet a lot of these films manage to fail anyway. Kung Fu Killer (aka Kung Fu Jungle) has one of these golden concepts and manages to deliver pretty much exactly what it promises.
Here’s the general deal. A serial killer is out killing the greatest kung fu masters of each fighting discipline, using only that discipline. So if a guy’s the best boxer, he punches him to death. There are eight kung fu masters. One of them is Donnie Yen, and of course he’s not going to put up with that shit. Unfortunately he’s stuck in jail. So he makes a deal with the coppers. He’ll solve their serial killer case if they let him go free.
That’s a hard action movie synopsis to top. Kung Fu Killer honors it, particularly in the first half as we see our killer (Baoqiang Wang) mow through one master after another (including familiar faces like Kung Fu Hustle’s Xing Yu and motherfucking Riki-Oh’s Siu-Wong Fan). These fights aren’t going for anything super flashy. There’s nothing mind blowing or next-level about them. Their just really good and interesting martial arts duels heightened by the aid of a rock solid concept.
The second half mostly abandons this structure to focus on Donnie Yen’s pursuit and battle with the killer. That may sound like a disappointment, but it’s not because Yen’s character has a really cool moral struggle going on that adds an intriguing layer to the film’s themes. On the surface, this is another almost annoyingly saintly Donnie Yen character. Except as the film progresses, we learn that deep down he struggles with some of the same issues that drive the killer to be the absolute best at all cost. Yen’s in jail because the one time he really cut loose with his kung fu he killed his opponent. While he immediately turned himself in to the cops, the war between using kung fu for good or using it as a tool of annihilation still isn’t totally decided for him, especially after this young upstart begins killing all his buddies and trying to kill his wife (to make him a better fighter, natch).
This all builds to a magnificent showdown between the two fighters that takes place on a busy highway occupied seemingly only by gigantic semi trucks with no breaks. While most of the martial arts in the film provide only a “pretty good” level of showiness, this big brawl really pulls out all the stops. It’s long, it’s filled with all kinds of creative touches, and the drama within feels totally earned.
For people willing to look all over the world for a fix, there are a ton of martial arts movies out there to choose from, but the really good ones aren’t all that easy to find. Kung Fu Killer isn’t so great that you can expect non-fans to fall in love with it or anything. But those intrigued by the film’s central concept should find themselves totally satisfied. This is definitely one of the good ones.
(Kung Fu Killer is a selection of the Fantasia Film Festival.)