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Unity of Heroes
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by Jay Seaver

"No 'Once Upon a Time', but not bad."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: That "Unity of Heroes" was made for a Chinese streaming service is no big surprise when you watch it; it's a movie that feels like it was put together by an algorithm, looks just good enough for a high-definition screen but maybe not a full-size cinema, and is a revival (of sorts) of something with a loyal fanbase. As with many American internet productions, it's familiar enough to be comfortable most of the time with a few scenes that nevertheless make it worth the time.

Vincent Zhao Wenzhou returns to the role of Wong Fei-hung, the legendary 19th Century martial-arts master he played in Once Upon a Time in China IV & V as well as a follow-up TV show from the same producers, but this is not an official sequel, and probably legally can't be. But it should be familiar enough - Wong is respected enough to not seek confrontation with newly arrived kung fu master Wu (Michael Tong Man-lung), which leaves the latter feeling a bit slighted. Other recent arrivals include Miss Mo Shijun (Wei Ni), a young in-law of Wong's who has been in Europe long enough to be out of place, and Duke Vlad, who has opened a new, Western-style hospital in town - but what is going on underneath?

The material is nothing that fans of the genre aren't familiar with, in many cases close enough to previous Wong Fei-hung movies to make this feel like a remake. It's clumsier, at times - the filmmakers can't quite make Master Wu work as Wong's peer the way that the best rival teachers do when these movies are working, and a mainland production today is going to have a different take on the increasing Western influence on China at the time than a 1990s Hong Kong production (a sharper anti-colonial attitude is not a bad thing, although it does often result in Mo being played more as a fool than a foil). The filmmakers also tend to promise more of a tall tale than they deliver: This was the second movie in a row at the festival that felt like it could have been much improved by the vampires that were clearly hinted at (the Evil White Guy is even named "Vlad"), and you don't establish exploding heads early to not have them at the climax.

It's interesting to see Vincent Zhao playing this role again a generation later; he was barely out of his teens when he stepped into Jet Li's shoes back in the 1990s, and the ore casual maturity suits him well in this part, enough so that he's missed when the film focuses on his students. They're an amiable if relatively anonymous group, enough to make one wish Wong Fei-hung had a more active role outside the fights and acupuncture, especially since there isn't a lot of chemistry between Zhao's Wong and Wei Ni's Mo. Wei Ni could be better used here, especially since she does shine when Mo is allowed to be a capable scientist, and plays well off Wei Xiaohuan, whose Captain Lu is both a skilled martial artist and biologist herself. She stands out as the honorable, uncertain villainess, and their pairing is more fun than any of the romantic ones.

Zhao may not be the most charismatic lead, but he does show up for the martial arts, and he's still a pretty strong screen fighter. The film relies on small brawls for much of its running time, but can get away with that because it's got a legitimate showstopper on either end: The opening chase is a sharp horror-style opening that thrills while also letting director Lin Zhenzhao introduce the audience to the setting without it feeling like a tour, but it's the finale that makes the best case for dropping whatever else you may be doing and paying full attention. Everyone gets in on the action but most of the focus is on Zhao and Michael Tong, who get a gravity-defying spectacle full of chains, big weapons, and blows that cause a bunch of property damage. It's highly wire-assisted but the sort of wire fu that reinforces these characters as larger-than-life legends while still giving the performers plenty of ways to show their training and athleticism.

"Unity of Heroes" isn't quite at the level where people will treat it as "Once Upon a Time in China VII", especially since Zhao is the only connection to that series. But when it makes its way to western streamers, it will be a fine thing to select when someone finishes one kung fu movie and "more like this" comes up, and maybe a nice appetizer for Zhao taking the role on again in the big-screen (and bigger-budget) "Kung Fu League" later this year.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32465&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/19/18 09:42:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Zhenzhao Lin

Written by
  Yuhao Gao
  Zhenyi Li
  Xinyao Niu
  Ning Yang

  Bingyuan Li
  Michael Tong
  Vincent Zhao

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