"If you want to kill somebody use a gun. Martial arts is about maximising your body's energy"
Is it blasphemy to consider that Jet Li's Fist of Legend is a better film than Fist of Fury? As remakes go it's got to be amongst the better ones. It certainly has some more progressive attitudes, and presents a more educated central character. This is probably still my favourite from the Wushu champions back catalogue, though other high points include the likes of Tai Chi Master and Once Upon a Time in China, the latter I will get to in a moment. At any rate the story presented does shed a more balanced light on the Japanese characters; both heroes and villains are shown being in their camp including the love interest. Even the guy doing the poisoning for the murder kicks off the story has a more sympathetic cause for doing so rather than it being simply race related. Okay so it helps that the set pieces are also really good too - I always liked the showdown with General Fujita and how he was able to do those kicks in that stiff military outfit, and the great improvised belt-come-nunchaku that gets used at the end is great. It's just a film that grows on me more each time I see it.
During this small marathon I also happened to pick up the first three "Once Upon a Time..." movies and also the comedy spin off Last Hero In China. The latter has the great alternate title Iron Rooster vs Centipede, which I think just about sums up what you can expect. Though it has the same central character and his students (Freddy... sorry Fei-hung - also the hero in Drunken Master) the tone is a lot more camp and the style of the movie utilises far more wire work. Plus it has the the whole centipede thing... honestly I can't tell you what's going on there, just watch a clip or something. Typical lion dance it is not. The main trilogy itself starts strong - I couldn't quite remember seeing the first part and perhaps had only seen the second, but it struck me how intricate the production design here is, and it comes off as having a larger budget than the usual Hong Kong action fare. There's a fairly standard plot about street gangs and foreign invaders, but the action is inventive and the comic relief elements are a lot lighter than many films in this genre which gives everything a bit more gravity.
Unfortunately the quality drops with part two which has a less well planned storyline, and goes it overboard in the finale with a silly evil cult showdown which feels out of place. Donnie Yen makes an appearance as a shady official but it feels like his involvement is a plot thread that could have been lost with more focus elsewhere. By the time you get to part three though things lose their way even more - half the movie seems to be taken up by huge lion dance sequences that look as though they were filmed just to have a lot of extras and props all on screen together. The lion heads fly about as do the performers, and the action is lost in the madness as they compete. It does tie up a few romantic plot lines with Rosamund Kwan (even if they can't decide her characters name - the subtitles change in every film) but ultimately it's a simple case of diminishing returns. Later they would replace Li with another main actor but I have yet to see any further entries in this series.
After this trilogy was done I also had time for some other viewings which I will quickly summarise. One that is only worth a foot note unfortunately was Black Mask. They try a few comic book masked vigilante ideas but doesn't go anywhere with a mix of half baked science fiction ideas and a drug dealing plot, and it really needed to include some more worthwhile action beats. I also revisited Hero which still remains a beautiful looking Wuxia epic with some nice characterisation, even if everyone's motivations become a little unclear by the time the final twist comes around. Still, it's a high point for the genre in anyones book - the later efforts by director Zhang Yimou never felt the same to me - both House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower failed to satisfy me; the latter more so. As for Mr Li himself, there's plenty of great stuff here, personally I look forward to films I haven't seen yet and taking another look at Fearless and Unleashed in the near future as well as the Shaolin Temple series.