With Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen approaching their fifties or even sixties, and looking to extend their acting ability as a way of staying relevant (which all three did superbly), the world of movie martial arts has been in dire need of a new beacon. For a while it looked like Tony Jaa was the heir apparent, with films like Ong Bak 1 & 2 and Tom Yum Goong displaying his amazing abilities. But his output has been both surprisingly sparse and strangely compromised by shady ties with the Thaï mob. But one other name deserves mention, that of Jacky Wu Jing. Wu was spotted in the mid-90’s by the great Yuen Woo Ping, but apart from two minor films, he didn’t do much in that decade to get himself known. But at the beginning of the noughties, he started cropping up in a variety of supporting roles where he more often than not played the “silent but deadly henchman with a strange hairstyle”. Films such as Wilson Yip’s S.P.L. (where his alley fight against Donnie Yen became an instant classic), Benny Chan’s Invisible Target and Dennis Law’s Fatal Move firmly put him on the map, but in order to really leave a mark, he would have to become a leading man, and Legendary Assassin was in 2008 his second attempt at that (the first one being Dennis Law’s Fatal Contact in 2006).

Jacky Wu Jing doesn’t only headline Legendary Assassin, he also co-directed it with martial arts choreographer extraordinaire Nicky Li Chung Chi. In it, Wu plays a silent assassin who is sent to an island to kill a mob boss. He does it very easily, but a storm prevents him from taking the ferry out of the island. He soon befriends a lady cop by rescuing her twice, first she falls off a tree and then when thugs resist her arrest. She introduces him to the rest of the little police station, while there is an outside investigation on who killed and decapitated the mob boss. At the same time, the latter’s henchmen are on the hunt for for his murderer, which all leads to a boiling point.

Legendary Assassin does a few things well, but not what you would expect it to do well, that is, the fights. With such a gifted martial artist as Jacky Wu Jing and a master of choreography like Nicky Li Chung Chi, one expects better than the three pedestrian fight scenes we are treated to. The moves are nothing you haven’t seen before, the filming is burdened with useless slow motion and even the occasional wireworks, which in a down-to-earth martial arts showcase is not only useless, but also obnoxious. Only a terrific bout where the hero, with two broken arms, has to fend off an sword-wielding assailant, can be considered memorable. But while it comes short where it counts for such a film, Legendary Assassin does unexpectedly achieve a few interesting things.

First, the central role of Bo, the “legendary assassin”, is strangely endearing in its mix of naïvety and deadly skills. Bo grew up in the Steppe and doesn’t seem to have a life to speak of, or even friends outside of a kindly restaurant owner played in a nice cameo by veteran ass-kicking lady Kara Hui. Seeing him befriend a lady cop and her colleagues while carrying the decapitated head of a mob boss in his bag might have made for pitch-black comedy, but somehow the film manages to make it strangely quirky and poignant at the same time, with the killer realising there might be more to life. This is helped by Wu Jing’s touching performance ; filmmakers always cast him as a deranged thug, but as evidenced here (and later in Benny Chan’s Shaolin), he has a sweetness and luminosity to him that, juxtaposed to his awe-inspiring martial arts abilities make him stand apart. He is well assisted by a cast which comprises well-known faces (Ken Lo and, yes, Lam Suet) and a nice newcomer in the person of Celina Jade, whose great beauty and easy-going charisma might destine her to bigger things.

Long Story Short : The fights are strangely sparse and disappointingly pedestrian, but there are some nice quirky touches and Jacky Wu Jing and newcomer Celina Jade make for appealing leads who ought to move to bigger things. **1/2

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