onnie 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
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
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.