THE UNITY OF HEROES (2018) review

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22 years after his last appearance as folk hero Wong Fei Hung (in the Tsui Hark-directed final episode of the Wong Fei Hung TV series), Vincent Zhao is back, he’s a producer now, and he has barely aged at all, as the first shot of Lin Zhenzhao’s straight-to-VOD revival seems designed to prove: a topless Zhao running with his disciples, looking like it’s still 1996. This leads to a re-staging of the classic “Wong Fei Hung training with dozens at dusk” opening of Tsui Hark’s seminal Once Upon A Time in China, and indeed The Unity of Heroes is a veritable checklist of Wong Fei Hung tropes (something Roy Chow’s flawed Rise of the Legend did consciously avoid). There’s rival martial arts masters, 13th Aunt bringing western culture to Canton and flirting coyly with Wong, disciples Fatty, Bucktooth and Leung Foon bumbling around, some lion dancing, and of course, evil Gweilos. It all feels very familiar – in a nice, nostalgic way – except for one detail: a drug that gives super-human strength to those who take it.

Indeed, when a demented, doped up stranger finds his way into Wong Fei Hung’s clinic, Po Chi Lam, with Captain Lu (Wei Xiaohuan) hot on his trail, the doctor and grandmaster begins to unveil – with the help of 13th Aunt (Wei Ni) – a conspiracy that involves an evil Gweilo experimenting on human beings to create a new drug whose effect is to enhance strength to a super-human level. And that drug might be of use to Master Wu (Michael Tong), a newly-arrived martial arts master who has just opened a school and wants to supersede Wong Fei Hung as the best fighter in Canton province. While The Unity of Heroes is obviously nowhere near the epic sweep of Tsui Hark’s first two film in the franchise, it nevertheless surprises with the solidity of it production values, which are not much below Once Upon A Time in China 4 & 5, the two installments in which Zhao starred in 1993 and 1994: a certain dearth of extras but reasonably engaging sets. Fights scenes are thankfully rather frequent and fairly watchable, choreographed by Sun Jianshe in a style closer to Yuen Bun’s (who choreographed the aforementioned two episodes) high-flying, prop-exploding flourishes, than to the more balletic, intricate duels of Yuen Woo Ping in the first two films of the series.

The plot, as the above synopsis indicates, doesn’t go for the broad historical sweep and political intrigue of Tsui Hark’s first installments, but is a cheesy and simplistic affair that evokes an episode of The Wild Wild West rather than a page of the life of a folk hero. Luckily, comical interludes are kept rather light and occasionally amusing, such as when the westernized 13th Aunt asks to eat with a fork and knife – upon which a very willing Bucktooth brings her a sword and a trident. Amusingly for a film about super-fighter experiments, music from Marco Beltrami’s score to The Wolverine is tracked in on a few occasions.

Vincent Zhao never could hold a candle to Jet Li’s portrayal of Wong Fei Hung, but he was always a sturdy replacement. Here, with age adding charisma to his once bland persona, he’s a welcome sight; and to hear that theme song while he strikes a pose with his iconic umbrella, does bring a few light shivers of nostalgia. His chemistry with Ni Wei is as non-existent as it was with Rosamund Kwan and Jean Wang, but Wei Xiaohuan is a minor revelation as a conflicted henchwoman: she has true presence, and good moves. Next year, Vincent Zhao will be back again as Wong Fei Hung in Jeff Lau’s Kung Fu League. A welcome prospect, but as we couldn’t help adding at the end of our review for Rise of the Legend: it’s not too late for Jet Li to come back. Now that wouldn’t go straight to VOD.

Long Story Short: Vincent Zhao is a welcome sight in this solid but silly and unremarkable return to the role that made him sort of famous. **

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4 Comments

  1. I guess you haven’t heard about Jet Li’s Health problems…

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the coverage LP. ;) Good to know this isn’t a complete waste of time.

    Reply

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