Donnie Yen’s “Legend of the Wolf” is an absurdly amusing and immensely enjoyable failure. It’s a failure in that its efforts to tell a story comes up lacking and the core of its purpose for being — its action — is a mixed bag of high-octane martial arts showcase and what appears to be actors doing their interpretations of mindless human whirlwinds.
I would hazard a guess at the movie’s time period, only I’m certain I would be wrong. By all accounts, the film opens in 20th century Hong Kong and travels backwards to 1950s China via flashbacks. I think. Using those flashbacks, the movie tells the tale of Donnie Yen’s Man-hin, a legendary killer who, oddly enough, doesn’t go by the name “the wolf,” which leaves me to wonder who is the “legend” the film’s title refers to. (Or is this just another case of bad film title translations?)
As is the case with many Hong Kong martial arts films, trying to capsulate the film’s main plots is a fruitless endeavor, since the films themselves are never quite certain about their plots. The term “making it up as they go” often come into play, and are oftentimes correctly used. As far as I can gather, Donnie Yen is fleeing a gang of bandits of which he was once a part of, only to end up in an impoverished village in the countryside. Here, Man-hin is befriended by Wai (Chi Wah Wong), the village’s resident tough guy. Despite suffering from amnesia and not knowing his own name, Man-hin knows he must get to a destroyed temple outside the village to wait for his beloved, Wai-Yee.
There are actually two types of action in “Legend of the Wolf” — the kind that involves multiple combatants and the one-on-one variety. The former is less effective than the later, since director Donnie Yen insists on shooting the different scenes as if he was making a film expressly for terminal patients dying from attention deficit disorder. There is a whirlwind of images and tumultuous sound and fury that, as the saying goes, signifies nothing. Let’s just say they’re not the kind of scenes anyone prone to migraines should sit through.
The one-on-one combat, on the other hand, is much more successful. Yen the actor proves to be a true martial artist, as he handles himself well, lending credibility to the fights. While Yen the director seems to realize that although he can’t confuse the audience forever with his “whirlwind of nothing” technique, he seems incapable of relenting the film’s one gimmick — the under cranking of the camera. For those who don’t know, Hong Kong action films are notorious for under cranking their cameras, which means the action is filmed at a much slower frame rate, thus giving the action onscreen the (false) impression of moving at a higher speed.
Curiously, the film’s alternate title is “The New Big Boss,” bringing to mind the Bruce Lee movie “The Big Boss.” In fact Donnie Yen (Ballistic Kiss) seems to be channeling the former martial arts great during much of his action scenes, doing everything from the nose twitch to the hand gestures to the scream made famous by Bruce Lee just moments before he deconstructs an opponent with his (dare I say it?) fists of fury. And just like Bruce, Yen is constantly fighting multiple opponents at once. Unfortunately it’s too bad we’re never sure if he’s fighting them or dancing with them. Remember the phrase “whirlwind of nothing?”
There’s not much to say about the supporting cast. That is, with the exception of Chi Wah Wong (Wai), who proves to be the superior actor despite not getting nearly as many slow lingering close-ups as star Donnie Yen. (Can you say conflicts of interest?) Wong not only gets the best lines, but also seems to be having a ball. Carman Lee, as Man-hin’s love interest Wai-Yee, is a pretty face, but has less energy than Yen in his non-action scenes.
The film is bookended by scenes in the present, where a now-aged Man-hin and Wai tells Man-hin’s story to a brash young man name Chan. Here, Donnie Yen confuses painting his hair white and talking in whispers as “playing old.” It’s also here that the film really gets confused about its plot. From what I can piece together by the dialogue, Man-hin is now a world-famous assassin. Or a gangster. Or some kind of legend, as the title suggests. Although, after having seen the film all the way through, I’m not quite sure what he did to ensure his status as a “legend” of anything. While killing bandits is a noble cause, more innocent people seem to have died as a result of Man-hin’s presence than Man-hin having helped them! Was he then a legend because he got a lot of people killed?
“Legend of the Wolf” is good when it’s good. The last 30 minutes is really one long action sequence with the bandits attacking en masse. There is also a long running fight where Man-hin races the bandits, who have abducted his beloved, across the woods. Here, Yen proves he has a sense of humor by having Man-hin begin bowling the villains over one by one with anything he can get his hands on. A truly inspiring, if mostly amusing, scene that is indicative of the film as a whole.
Donnie Yen (director) / Donnie Yen (screenplay)
CAST: Ben Lam …. Bandit Leader
Carman Lee …. Wai-Yee
Edmond Leung …. Ben Chan
Chi Wah Wong …. Wai
Donnie Yen …. Fung Man-hin