The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here
As someone who spent a fair portion of their childhood staring rapt at the screen during weekend marathons of “Kung Fu Theater,” it’s difficult not to get a gleeful shiver of recognition when Legendary in Action! introduces us to our future protagonist Bill Cheung in a not dissimilar condition. And when he, in knowing voiceover, explains that the TV cutting out at a crucial moment during his favorite show, “The Seven Star Sword,” is the incident that inspired him to become a director, it also rings unnervingly true.
But while this all serves as a cute origin story, there’s an unremarked upon undertone of disappointment, one that is only underlined by the unfortunately prophetic quote: “What’s sleek on the screen is bleak behind the scenes.”
The clever animated titles seem to portend a raucous celebration of filmmaking and a tribute to the type of no budget, old school wuxia cinema that mostly exists as memory (a nice touch is that the title of the movie never appears onscreen; the only title we ever see is the name of the film within the film, the wordy but perfectly crafted “The Seven Star Sword and the Bastille of the Overlord”), and for the first half, Legendary in Action! lives up to that lofty and deeply fun ideal.
Unfortunately, in screenwriter Gary Chan’s faithfulness to the old school Hong Kong cinematic ethos, he also adapts one of their iffier traits: a capacity for abrupt tonal shifts. And the fairly out-of-nowhere shift into melodrama halfway through lets the air out of the tires in a way that’s less than fulfilling.
But before that, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had.
A few decades after his aforementioned formative experience, Bill (now played by Justin Cheung, who also co-directed the film with Li Ho) has found himself half-assedly directing hack work, giving undiscriminating audiences what they want by pointing the camera at the chests of his leading ladies and calling it a day. When his producer and childhood friend Alan (Jiro Lee) finds a money man looking to bankroll their script for a modern day continuation of the “Seven Star Sword” saga, Bill finds his old spirit reawakened—doubly so when he has a chance encounter with the aged star of the original series, Dragon Tin, after Tin mistakes him for a cab driver at the hospital and the starstruck Bill refuses to correct him, unthinkingly leaving his very pregnant wife with their obstetrician to drive him home.
Bill convinces everyone to give the washed up Tin the lead, but the old man proves to be more troublesome than anyone anticipated; a true crank with a lot of opinions on the “right way” to make movies and a hare trigger temper; within five minutes of showing up for the table read, he has driven the leading lady to walk off set and put the entire production in doubt.
There is, admittedly, not a lot that’s particularly original in the setup or the execution of Legendary In Action!, but then again that’s hardly the point; it’s homage at it’s most naked. And in those moments where it has fun with it, the film shines. Veteran performer Chen Kuan-tai sells both the grumpiness and the prideful dignity of Dragon Tin, and has a nice rapport with Cheung.
Pak Kit, a dreamy, eager to please pop idol who shows up to be an extra and gets thrust into the role of the main villain, which is disposition is uniquely unsuited for, proves to be a deftly deployed delight. And as waitress turned exceedingly mercenary replacement female lead Greta, Wiyona Yeung scores some solid chuckles.
And to be sure, there’s no small amount of laughs here: the extended set piece where Tin eschews the pre-planned fight choreography to run around the set beating the shit out of everybody starts out hilarious, and gets funnier and funnier the more it goes on.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing when that turn comes and we discover the reason behind Tin’s irascible behavior (which is probably not hard to guess for even the most unschooled of movie watchers)
None of the characters have been built to carry the weight of the drama (which is why a fair chunk of the more overtly broad ones just kind of disappear for awhile)
As good as the fight scene set piece is, it meets its opposite in an extended fight between Bill and his wife, who at the height of his sense of failure, takes him to task for prioritizing his career over their burgeoning family.
And the thing is, this could have been a very powerful scene if executed properly. But the film hasn’t earned it. And the interesting ambiguity of it (Bill’s agony over his one field of true passion not loving him back, and feeling like he missed his shot, pitted against the very real truth that he’s been a neglectful husband) instead just comes off as half-formed.
Likewise, the moment where the cast and crew rally to finish the film no matter what fails to inspire the way the filmmakers want, since up until the very moment where Bill’s speech gets cut off by the crew telling him they’re already in, no one actually seemed convinced the movie was going to be any good, or even worth the effort. Basically, no one’s arc reads well enough for that moment to play.
So the second half, despite some good acting and some decent moments, fails to live up to the promise of the fast, funny, wildly entertaining first half.
.I have to admit: the very last scene got me.
At the premiere of the finished film (spoilers, except… c’mon), Bill gives a speech about his love of Hong Kong cinema. And at a certain point, the speech stops being part of the movie and starts taking on real world significance; an emotional, utterly open hearted show of appreciation for the films that came before, and a sadness that those days may be over (which recent events give a haunting sort of relevance)
Again… it’s impossible to say how any of this would work on someone who’s coming to this without a knowledge of that very special era. But as someone who was lucky enough to stumble onto John Woo in the foreign film section in junior high and had his brain fundamentally rewired as a result of the rabbit hole it sent me down…
…I’m not gonna lie; I did get a little choked up.
That’s why, for all it’s imperfections, it’s impossible for me to dismiss Legendary In Action out of hand. The stuff that works really works, and the stuff that doesn’t… in the long run, it feels like a minor sin compared to the utter sincerity of its aims and ultimate message. It’s flawed, but still fun.
The 20th anniversary edition of the New York Asian Film Festival runs from July 15th to July 31st.