We live in an excellent time for action films. If you like tough guy beat-em-ups, guys like Scott Adkins usually have your back. If you want hard hitting violence and mind-boggling choreography, there’s so much great stuff coming from directors like Gareth Evans and (should he get back into it anytime soon) John Hyams. Even American mainstream action is enjoying a high note - Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious and even some of the Marvel films are all currently showing us some of the best action money can buy.
With all these great options right in front of us, nostalgia for the old days isn’t really an issue. And yet, that is exactly what The Unity of Heroes is all about. The film offers a pleasant, well-made reminder of what (now) old school martial art movies used to look and feel like. I wouldn’t trade past for present in this regard, but it sure is fun taking this look back in time.
The Unity of Heroes brings legendary Once Upon a Time in China folk hero Wong Fei-hung back to the big screen after more than twenty years away. Vincent Zhao, who took over the role for three films and a television show after Jet Li departed the series, is back and only looks a couple days older somehow. Without Li or the Once Upon a Time titling tradition, it’s not quite the marquee return you’d expect, but a case could be made that this is Zhao’s character now anyway.
As usual, the story involves beloved martial arts instructor Wong Fei-hung as he defends his people from the encroaching influence of evil Westerners. In this case, we have a white doctor (good luck trying to suss out what country he comes from) who builds a hospital to aid the Chinese opium epidemic only to inflict people with an opium-based serum that turns them into super-strong monsters who are impervious to pain. The film isn’t exactly subtle.
But it sure is fun. A ton of great fighting scenes punctuate the film’s plot, and many of them are simply cheerful and innocent in their execution. Sure, there’s a big drag-out finale, but on the way we also get joyful rivalry brawls with another school and fun training sequences. Old school wire work is often employed with only a few nods to modern techniques (a punch impact seen in x-ray or one instance of bullet time, for instance). Wong Fei-hung has a trio of goofy students who get almost as many big moments as he does, usually for the sake of good-natured comedy. The villains are diabolical, the stakes are high, but the film itself is a total breeze.
It’s interesting to find myself longing for movies like this, as the similarities between Once Upon a Time in China and Donnie Yen’s IP Man series mean we haven’t really been without a character like this for long. Both involve beloved masters so chaste they won’t even touch their wives who are plagued by outside evils when all they really want to do is eat food and chill out. But there is just something about this setting and aesthetic that creates a different place and time. The whole feel of the action is different from IP Man, for one thing. While technically assured, it’s less about what a performer can do and more focused on what the character is capable of, which is to say it’s not grounded in reality at all. It does not quite enter into the Wuxia realm either, though it of course comes pretty close at times.
The Unity of Heroes is simply a blast of nostalgia for a type of film I didn’t even know I was missing. It’s silly, more or less G-rated and maybe a little too cute, but that’s all part of its charm. If this review made any sense to you, I highly recommend checking the film out.