In the latest adaptation of the Wong Fei Hung narrative, Rise of the Legend, comparisons are bound to be made with previous martial arts film classics that have tackled the same subject. Unfortunately, this latest endeavor starring Eddie Peng in the iconic role lacks the humor of The Legend of the Drunken Master, the epic qualities of the Once Upon a Time in China franchise, and the charisma of their stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. What Rise of the Legend does have is polished visuals that modernize the cinematic action to emphasize cinematography over the pure physical abilities of its star. The past films were more about the action choreography, whereas Rise of the Legend becomes about the camera work instead. Sometimes this emphasis on visuals works as a welcome distraction to the obvious shortcomings in other areas of filmmaking, though it occasionally runs the risk of being as soulless as any number of CGI-filled summer blockbusters.
In the real life of Wong Fei Hung, which has been embellished through numerous productions for entertainment value, it is said that he took on a dock gang in a seaside village in his early years. These supposedly true events are warped into a classic kung-fu revenge narrative to the point that only a fraction of history remains, though martial arts fans are unlikely to care once the fighting begins. After confusingly beginning the movie with a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we learn that Fei’s father was unjustly killed by the actions of the tyrannical seaside gang run by Master Lui (Sammo Hung), leading him and a group of oppressed friends to meticulously plan a revenge over a long period of time. There is so much back-story and unnecessary character introduction that the first act of the film makes the plot appear convoluted, even though it eventually devolves into a fairly predictable narrative relying on big action set pieces above character development.
In order to infiltrate the gang, Fei goes undercover as a coldhearted thug in Master Lui’s gang, until he has risen so high in status that the tyrant considers him an adopted son. Meanwhile, Lui’s childhood friend and training partner, Fiery (Boran Jing), takes to the streets and builds a rebellion amongst the impoverished, orphaned, and oppressed. They work together to take down the corruption, seeking revenge while simultaneously ensuring that there is nobody to continue the gang once Lui has fallen. A few tragic romantic relationships are thrown into the narrative as well, though this merely confuses the already convoluted narrative, lacking emotional depth needed to add gravity rather than melodrama.
The focus is instead on the thunderous impact of each punch thrown, stylized to feel more like superhero action than the skill of trained fighters. Younger audiences may appreciate this glossy form of action more than the simpler martial arts of past films, but even the modern update can’t hide the fact that Peng never quite matches the star quality of actors who have previously played this role. Though he has the physicality of a great martial arts actor, his presence never emerges beyond what could be achieved with a still image. Never boring, Rise of the Legend also has minimal lasting impact. It makes for a solidly entertaining viewing experience despite lacking emotional resonance.
The Blu-ray only offers a simple making-of featurette and a trailer in the manner of special features, though this is not the primary reason for the disc. Less important than the extras is the high definition visual presentation of stylish film. Just as important is the 5.12 HD surround sound, which emphasizes each punch and clang of swords making impact. If this film is all about the spectacle, it might as well be enjoyed in the best possible quality.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 3.5/10