Rise of the Legend tells the story of the formative years of the Chinese martial arts legend Wong Fei-hung (Eddie Peng). During the Qing Dynasty in 19th century China there are two rival gangs vying for control of the port where a lot of trade (and money) is funneled through. There's the Black Tigers led by Master Lui (Sammo Kam-Bo Hung) and the Northern Sea that's slowly being pushed out by Lui. Wong Fei-hung finds himself in good favor with the Black Tigers after doing a deed for them and becomes the fourth adopted son of Master Lui. Although Wong Fei-hung has his own agenda by joining the gangsters. To destroy their stranglehold over China from within, or to at least free one of China's most important ports from their grasp.
Right off the bat we're immediately thrown into a life or death fight with Wong Fei-hung and then we take a commendably well-paced flashback into the events that led him into this grave situation. The editing is coherent and easy to follow, I also liked the artistic 'ink-splash' introductions of Master Lui's three adopted 'Tigers' (sons) as well. They're introduced simply with rather one-dimensional character traits, but do develop as the movie progresses. They surely get more development than most other sub-villains get. Aesthetically I was very surprised by how beautifully Rise of the Legend looked, the sets, wardrobe, production values, fight choreography, everything looked fantastic. The cgi looked a bit weak in a couple of parts, especially the fire, but everything else was great.
There are a couple of extremely poor instances of wire-work during the end battle, and the use of GoPro didn't work well at all in the context of the movie. It completely ruined the flow of the already impressive fight scenes. There was simply no need to implement it, and it's so jarring when you see it. Thankfully that's only used a couple of times, but you notice it every time. Rise of the Legend was also shot as a 3D movie, so there's a lot of those shots that are made for 3D, but look quite cheesy outside of 3D. There's a lot of slow-mo in the fight scenes too, and I mean a lot. Aside from those criticisms the fight scenes were overall well done. Not a whole lot of shaky cam, not too much editing, good framing and there's a good sense of power involved in the fights too. They were brutal. To the point where I'm not even sure if it was supposed to be supernatural or not. There are white bodies, which I thought was the result of a witch, but not much is said about that. There's a sword that can send out razor sharp slices of wind and Wong Fei-hung can literally punch through a cement pillar. So tonally it felt a bit all over the place. Is it biographical or fantastical? Probably a bit of both.
But I have to say that there's not really that much action in Rise of the Legend, and the best fight is probably within the first half of the movie. That's not to say that the second half isn't good, because it is, but I did feel it lagging in a couple of places. Even still, It's surprisingly emotional as well and it all came together in a rousing way in the end. The payoff was worth it. The narrative was a bit scattered though. Some scenes didn't connect, and it was hard to get emotionally invested with these four lifelong friends because they spend practically no time interacting with each other throughout the movie. Everything was supposed to be clandestine, so I get that they couldn't been seen to interact with each other, and given the minimal nature of their roles in the movie, they really did quite well imbuing some heart and humanity behind their friendship.
Wong Fei-hung has been immortalized in Chinese cinema, most notably by Jet-Li in his Once Upon A Time In China movies but Eddie Peng steps into Jet's shoes admirably, and he's not even a martial artist. It's not even so much about the 'traditional' Wong Fei-hung either, this is more about how Wong Fei-hung came to believe in his ideals and became a national icon in doing so. Rise of the Legend almost played out a little bit more like a heist movie than it did a traditional martial arts movie, which I enjoyed, and it's distinctly more serious than the Jet Li movies were. I would imagine that they intend to make sequel(s) based on this foundation, and I think it's a great place to start. Flawed in places but ultimately a highly enjoyable, sometimes poignant and often uplifting martial arts epic. There are also plenty of nods to the other Wong Fei-hung movies as well. I dare any fan of the Jet Li movies to watch the end and to not get a little smile.
Written by - The Sentry - 24/08/2016