Big-bucks follow-up to the 1998 Hong Kong smash hit “The Storm Riders” sees a largely unchanged tech crew and some of the same cast solving many of the first movie’s problems but coming up short in other ways. A period actioner largely set in early 20th century New York, “A Man Called Hero” has a distinctive flavor and overall is a much more satisfying dramatic ride than “Rider,” which was a stop-start patchwork of notable moments. Minor adjustments could make this an entertaining niche item in Western markets, with a robust life in ancillary.
Released last July, pic under-performed in H.K. compared with “Riders,” taking some HK$24 million ($3 million, about the same as “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”), while the heavily promoted first movie grossed HK$42 million. Like “Riders,” the new film is adapted from a popular manga by Ma Wing-shing, but it’s a much more grounded piece of filmmaking, set in a recognizable era, rather than in a martial arts fantasy land, and shot through with elements of national pride in the way it addresses the discriminatory treatment of overseas Chinese in the early 20th century.
Though not noted onscreen, opening reel is set in 1913, somewhere in southern China, where bad omens are signaled by the fact that it is snowing. Hero Wah (Ekin Cheng, from “Riders”) is sent by his parents, with the family’s magic Red Sword, to train under Master Pride (Anthony Wong) and returns to find Mom and Dad murdered by nasty Westerners. After impregnating his wife, Jade (Kristy Yang), he sets sail in a funk for the U.S.
Sixteen years later, his son, Sword Wah (Nicholas Tse), arrives at Ellis Island with Dad’s best friend, Sang (Jerry Lamb), and takes up residence in Chinatown (an impressively spacious standing set outside Shanghai). The next hour or so consists essentially of large flashbacks, with three characters filling in the intervening history for young Sword.
A monk (Harold Low) recalls his days working in a mine with Hero; Sang tells how he previously voyaged to Gotham with the pregnant Jade in search of her hubby; and the masked Shadow (Dion Lam), a fellow student with Hero back in China, recounts his and Hero’s battle against Japanese ninjas and Jade’s death when the ninja leader (Mark Cheng) torched Chinatown. Last half-hour limns Sword’s meeting with his melancholic father and the latter’s revenge on the ninjas in a battle with their grand master (Francis Ng).
Though the plot, as always in manga-derived pics, is overflowing with characters and subplots, “Hero” is far easier to follow than “Riders,” thanks not least to much more fluid lensing by returning helmer and d.p. Andrew Lau and a remarkably fine score by Chan Kwong-wing, which knits together the story’s sprawling emotional fabric. Scripter Manfred Wong’s extensive flashback structure, with three characters giving different perspectives on the hero’s odyssey, works surprisingly well, providing added value rather than confusion.
At its best, the movie attains fleeting echoes of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”; at its worst, it throws in underdeveloped characters (Grace Yip’s Kate, daughter of Shadow, or Shu Qi’s ninja woman, almost a cameo) and fights that don’t go anywhere (Master Pride vs. the ninja master). Though few of the characters replicate the wilder originals of the source material, they all make sense in the more realistic terms of the movie.
The long-locked Ekin Cheng is far more charismatic here than in “Riders,” and sensibly not given a lot of dialogue. Garcon du jour Tse, only 18 when the pic shot, makes a convincing son, and Yang is fine as the wife. More substantial acting ballast is provided by Low, grave as the monk, and Lamb, lighter as the hero’s buddy. CGI effects are stronger when concentrating on atmosphere and backgrounding rather than physical action, notably in the weak finale atop the Statue of Liberty.