Director: Tsui Siu Ming
Writer: Tsui Siu Ming
Producer: Tom Cheung, Amy Lee, Tsui Siu Ming
Cast: Dicky Cheung Wai Kin, Tse Miu, Debbie Ng Tin Yu, Priscilla Wong Cuiru, Chui Heung Tung, Wai Chi Ho, Yu Rong Guang, Maria Cordero, Lee Fai
Running Time: 117 min.
If you thought “Ip Man 2” and “Jet Li’s Fearless” went a wee bit overboard with their jingoistic ‘ra ra China’ patriotism, then 2008′s “Champions” might just make your eyes roll permanently into the back of your head.
This film, made to commemorate China’s hosting of the ’08 Olympics, takes a look back at the first year the country took part in the celebrated games (1936). The result is an inspirational martial arts/sports drama that takes its national pride to such extremes that it will mostly likely prove comical to all but the most devoted. This is “Karate Kid” repurposed into “Kung Fu Nation”; a movie about how China can do anything it sets its mind to if its countrymen just put their selfishness aside and do what’s best for the collective. Don’t be surprised if phrases like “Let’s take China to the Olympics!” become an in-joke between you and anyone who watches the movie with you.
The thing about Chinese/Hong Kong cinema, though, is that they’ve always had the best martial arts sequences in the world. And “Champions” does not disappoint in that regard. During the first twenty minutes, I honestly thought the movie was going to be something like a Chinese version of “Newsies,” especially after the cast gave an extended acrobatic performance through the city streets. But it doesn’t take long for the film to ramp up the pace and give way to several lengthy fight sequences. Sure, there are a few blatant and distracting instances of wire-fu but, overall, the fight scenes are extremely well-choreographed and hard-hitting. If you can put up with the syrupy melodrama and the blatant propaganda of the rest of the movie, martial arts buffs should find “Champions” entertaining enough. Hey, if Michael Bay can turn the “Transformers” movies into thinly-veiled military recruitment ads, can’t China have their “Champions”?
The main character in the film is played by comedian Dicky Cheung, who reportedly spent months training in martial arts for the role. His work seems to have paid off as he looks believable in a fight but I wish I could say the same about his acting. LoveHKFilm describes Cheung as a “wannabe Steven Chow,” which seems dead-on to me. His self-satisfied and overly loud character not only feels incongruous with the period setting of the film, but he’s just plain grating to watch. Note to filmmakers: it doesn’t help your movie when the protagonist is an annoying showboat who never takes off his golf visor. I can’t say I ever really felt sympathy for the guy, despite the screenplay’s many ups and downs. Cheung may be enormously popular in China but as far as I’m concerned he can’t carry a movie.
Fortunately, the film is rounded out by able supporting players. You may not recognize Xie Miao but chances are you’ve seen him before: as a child, he played Jet Li’s son in not one but two movies, “My Father is a Hero” and “Legend of the Red Dragon.” Over a decade has passed since those those films but Xie Miao doesn’t appear to have missed a beat; he’s still a talented martial artist and a strong screen presence. His more straight-faced, level-headed character is a welcome antidote to Dicky Cheung’s over-acting. Also look for martial arts legend Yu Rong-Guang (“Iron Monkey,” “Shanghai Noon”), a graduate of the famous Peking Opera School, and Xu Xiang-Dong (“14 Blades,” “White Vengeance”), who manages to steal every seen he’s in as a bloodthirsty practitioner of the Eagle Claw kung fu style.
“Champions” is easy to poke fun at if you’re viewing the film as an outsider, someone not overcome with Chinese pride. But the truth is that it’s not a bad little kung fu flick and it’s great to see Xie Miao tearing up the screen once again. I find “Champions” easy to recommend to action fans with a high tolerance for syrupy melodrama. The fight scenes don’t disappoint and the music is appropriately melodic and over-the-top, complimenting the movie in a Disney-esque fashion. In fact, that’s what the whole movie rather feels like: the Chinese equivalent of a motivational Disney movie, just with a whole lot of ass-kicking.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6.5/10