As a vehicle for Jet Li and rising Chinese thesp Wen Zhang to show off their kung fu and comedy chops, respectively, “Badges of Fury” narrowly passes muster as a silly time-killer, souped up with some wackily conceived action. Mainland-produced but helmed by Hong Kong newcomer Wong Tsz-ming, the film — pairing Li and Wen as bickering cops cracking a serial murder case — coasts along on gags and slapstick, with multiple star cameos the icing on this unnourishing cake. Pic opened strong domestically before being overshadowed by “Man of Steel,” and should have ancillary legs in genre markets.
“Badges” has all the trappings of a film typically released over a Chinese holiday period: a rambling hodgepodge of genres and movie parodies featuring dozens of stars in blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameos. Produced by Beijing Enlight Pictures, the company that released China’s biggest domestic hit, “Lost in Thailand,” the film may be dominated by mainland stars, but its style and sensibility are informed by ’80s Hong Kong kitsch and the sort of head-scratching ’90s humor influenced by H.K. multihyphenate Stephen Chow. Curiously, however, neither the setting nor the art direction seems consciously retro.
Li and Wen (“Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” “Love Is Not Blind”) have teamed up twice before to convivial effect, first as a father-and-autistic-son duo in “Ocean Heaven” (2010), then as a demon-slaying Buddhist monk and his daffy disciple in “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” (2011). Here, Li plays Huang Feihong, a seasoned detective with brains and brawn, and a tribute to his same-named role in Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series. Wen is Wang Bu’er, a blundering cop who suffers from delusions of genius. They’re ordered by senior officer Angela Chan (Michelle Chen, “You Are the Apple of My Eye”) to solve the serial “Smile Murders,” so named because the victims are all found with mysterious smiles on their faces.
The first 30 minutes offer a brazenly artificial setup designed to bring on a roster of star cameos: An actor (TV thesp Cheng Kar-wing), a diver (former Olympic diver Tian Liang), a dancer (TV actor and dance-contest champion Tse Tin-wah) and a property developer (Tong Dawei) all fall victim to the killer. One thing the victims have in common is that they all dated and dumped B-list actress Liu Jingshui (Cecilia Liu Shishi).
After a few dumb good-cop-bad-cop hijinks, the story finally gets juicy with the appearance of Liu’s prodigiously busty half-sister, Dai Yiyi (Liu Yan); she’s dating Liu’s old flame, Gao Min (Raymond Lam), and does some rather creepy things with a voodoo doll. Alas, that’s only half of the madcap plot, which continues to pile on wacko characters like grizzled gangster Tiger Crane Lucky (Leung Kar-yan), Liu’s paralyzed uncle (Leung Siu-lung) and his peeping-Tom son (Stephen Fung).
Whenever the comedy starts to sag, the film injects a fight scene (reliably staged by Corey Yuen), which generally does the trick. The 50-ish Li still possesses plenty of stamina, as is clear whether he’s making daring leaps or matching national martial-arts champ Wu Jing punch for punch. The bigger setpieces, such as a group rumble or a showdown at a Chinese opera house, have a nostalgic feel but are no less robustly lensed (by Kenny Tse) and edited (by Angie Lam), although they rely rather excessively on slo-mo and jump cuts.
While the shambolic narrative offers less drama or spectacle than Li and Wen’s previous collaborations, the actors’ chemistry remains intact, thanks to Wen’s unique brand of cluelessness, which helps bring out Li’s snarky side (absent from his straight heroic roles). Taiwanese thesp Chen spends most of the time looking annoyed or stumped, but her vivaciousness meshes well with Wen’s over-the-top clowning. Lee is purely functional and so bland that it’s understandable why so many men would want to ditch her.
Tech credits are average, with sets on the shoddy side. Wardrobe by Shirley Chan is in line with the Wong Jing and Raymond Wong school of costume design, predicated on the notion that no skirt can be too short and no cleavage too visible.