"Kick Boxer" Chinese Theatrical Poster
Director: Wu Ma
Writer: Lee Man Choi
Producer: Yuen Biao
Cast: Yuen Biao, Shirley Lui Sau Ling, Yuen Wah, Yen Shi Kwan, Sheila Chan Suk Lan, Wu Ma, Gam Sap Yee, Chen Shan, Tai Bo, Anthony Carpio, Chu Tau, Louis Roth, Yuen Mao, Corey Yuen Kwai, Max Kasimsky
Running Time: 92 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There aren’t many people out there who would disagree that Jet Li being cast as Wong Fei Hung was an inspired choice. In 1991 director Tsui Hark revived the Wong Fei Hung character with Once Upon a Time in China, and Li went on to play Hung in 3 official sequels and 1 unofficial entry into the series. However something always bothered me about Once Upon a Time in China, and that was the fact that it had one of the greatest kung fu stars in the history of the genre, Yuen Biao, in merely a supporting role. The star of such classics as Prodigal Son and Righting Wrongs in a supporting role!? It just didn’t seem right.
For fans of Biao, it must have come as a great relief that just a couple of years later, Kick Boxer was released. Made almost as if to specifically alleviate the frustrations of those who wanted to see him front and center in a Wong Fei Hung tale, the production brings with it plenty of familiar faces from Once Upon a Time in China. Wu Ma steps into the directors chair as well as co-starring, the villain from Once Upon a Time in China, Yen Shi Kwan, here plays an incorruptible police captain, and Anthony Carpio takes on assistant action direction duties on top of appearing in front of camera.
Biao produced the movie (even having his Yuen Biao Films logo in the opening credits), and here plays a mischievous rascal called Lau Zhai, who’s trying to be taken on as a student of Wong Fei Hung. In 1993 the prospect of anyone other than Jet Li playing Fei Hung would be considered preposterous, so the script wisely sidesteps the whole issue, by having the character be absent from proceedings due to ‘traveling in Asia’. Biao and his friend, played by Wu Ma, have been in Hong Kong where they’ve picked up some herbs for the Po Chi Lam clinic. However unbeknownst to them, opium has been hidden in the packages they’re carrying, which ultimately leads to Biao being framed, and subsequently embarking on a mission to clear his name and redeem his reputation.
Both Wu Ma and Biao’s careers were often wildly uneven during the 90’s. While Ma continued to act in several movies per year, his directorial efforts around the same period, namely the likes of Exorcist Master and Circus Kids (which also featured Biao), were only average at best. Biao on the other hand seemed to be having a go at everything, from new wave wuxia like The Sword Stained with Royal Blood, to Filipino action cheapies like Tough Beauty and Sloppy Slop, to trying his hand at directing with A Kid from Tibet. As uneven as a lot of their output was though, for Kick Boxer their collaboration was one that would reap rewards for fans of Biao in action.
Apart from the cast members already mentioned, Kick Boxer deserves extra points for its villains, which come in the form of Yuen Wah and Chang Shan. The prospect of seeing Biao face off against either of them would be enough to warrant a watch, however with both of them onboard, expectations are understandably raised. Biao and Wah faced off against each other several times over the years, from Eastern Condors to The Iceman Cometh, and Biao must have recognized how much he works well paired with Wah, as he also brought him on board for The Kid from Tibet. Kick Boxer sadly marked the last time they’d go at it, so in many ways acts as a footnote to one of Hong Kong cinemas greatest kung fu pairings.
Everyone in the cast performs well though, especially Yen Shi Kwan as the gold shoe wearing police officer. Shi Kwan has one of the most recognizable faces in kung fu cinema, usually playing a memorable villain whether it be in old school classics like The Master Strikes, to new wave classics like Iron Monkey, also made in 1993. In Kick Boxer he gets to take a break from playing the villain, taking on the role of an upright police captain, and father to a female newspaper editor that Biao takes a liking to. Notably he’s also an asthmatic, which could well be a nod to Lam Ching Ying’s character in The Prodigal Son. Unfortunately playing a good guy doesn’t mean he gets any less of a painful demise, with a confrontation against Wah ending on a particularly cruel note.
While Kick Boxer clearly doesn’t have the same budget behind it as the likes of Once Upon a Time in China, it more than makes up for it with the action and creativity on display. At one point Biao and Shi Kwan engage in a game of chess on a human sized playing board, which sees them flipping and kicking chess pieces at each other set to an electric guitar rendition of the famous Wong Fei Hung theme. It’s random, but it keeps things entertaining. The movie also utilizes the bullet point of view shot that Ringo Lam created for his movie Full Contact, made the year prior, only instead of it being Chow Yun Fat against Simon Yam, its Yuen Wah against Yuen Biao. It’s these small touches and flourishes that help to elevate Kick Boxer above many of the similarly themed new wave movies that were coming out around the same time.
Of course the most important part in any kung fu movie starring Yuen Biao is how the action measures up. Thankfully he gets plenty of opportunities to shine, from an initial fight on a cruise liner against a group of angry waiters, to the finale, which sees him go on a one man rampage in the mansion where Wah resides. His physical dexterity is on display front and center, throwing out some kicks which seem to come from impossible angles. The promise of having Yuen Wah and Chang Shan as the villains also isn’t squandered when, having disposed of several of their lackeys, Biao gets to first take on Shan, decked in a sharp black suit and armed with a dagger, and then Wah.
Both fights feature some painful looking falls, and Wah’s fight in particular is entertaining, as every time he strikes a pose it’s accompanied by the sound effect of an eagles cry. Like any new wave movie of the era, there is wirework, however it’s used sparingly, and mostly to enhance impacts. Biao choreographed the action himself, along with another of the Seven Little Fortunes, Yuen Mao, who worked with Biao again on Circus Kids. It would have been great to see a series of Lau Zhai movies, but it apparently wasn’t to be. Biao wouldn’t take on action director duties again until several years later, and he never really went back to the type of mischievous character with a heart of gold that he portrayed so well in the likes of Prodigal Son and Dreadnaught.
As it stands though, Kick Boxer is a worthy entry into both Biao’s filmography and as a new wave kung fu movie. With the recent reboot of Wong Fei Hung in 2014’s Rise of the Legend, which seemed to do away with everything that makes these tales so entertaining in the first place, Kick Boxer is well worth seeking out as a reminder of why Hong Kong cinema was so great.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10