Top Hong Kong martial arts director Yuen Kwai teams up with comedy specialist Wong Jing on “The New Legend of Shaolin,” a high-kicking historical revenge spectacular with enough accelerated rotary action and slice-and-dice wizardry to put the most high-tech kitchen appliance to shame.A nonstop crowd-pleaser that even makes a virtue of its occasional comedic crassness, the film is a natural midnight programmer that could be propelled to cult status with some smart marketing.
H.K. superstar Jet Li makes a commanding central figure as Hong Xiguan. A kung fu student trained at a Shaolin monastery, Hong joins rebel forces in an attempt to overthrow the ruling oppressors. He is betrayed and informed on by a fellow student, resulting in the execution of his family. Hong manages to save his young son (Xie Miao), who soon develops into an equally stoic little chopsocky dynamo.
The early fight sequences set a highly charged tone as Hong goes at it hammer and tongs (often with junior strapped to his back), aided by Freddy Krueger-style weaponry and some comically preposterous aerial kickboxing skills.
Father and son then take up residence with rich buffoon Ma (Chen Sung-yung), who wants kung fu instruction. Also taken in is Red Bean (Chingmy Yau), a poor girl selling herself as a slave to pay for her mother’s burial.
Most of the agreeably klutzy humor comes via the femme duo, with the mother (Deanie Ip) only pretending to be a corpse or a ghost to get herself set up in a wealthy household and split the loot with her venal daughter. Outfitting Hong in new robes, Red Bean is revealed to be no slouch in the martial arts department herself in a scene that puts a whole new spin on needlework and gives rise to a growing flicker of attraction between the two.
Action segs come thick and fast, sustaining a reckless pace that gives way only fleetingly to a mild lag. The real sparks come with the return of Hong’s initial betrayer, believed to be dead but now disfigured and invincible in a gleaming silver deathmobile. He is accompanied by troops of marauders rolling up in spherical shield formations that look like lunar modules.
With foxy Red Bean and her mother (who rediscovers her own warrior-woman talents) now on board, Hong and son defend themselves and the Shaolin temple from the attackers. The series of showdowns gradually gains momentum, building to a rip-roaring finale replete with a vat of bubbling oil in a Hitchcockian clock tower.
Fine work from designers Raymond Li and Fu Delin combines historical settings with a more fantastic vein of rich invention, all of it superbly shot by Tom Lau. Cast is uniformly strong, with Xie a particular delight as the unfazable young whirligig.