China/Hong Kong, 2008, colour, 1.85:1, 83 mins.
Directors: Li Zhongzhi 李忠志 [Nicky Li], Wu Jing 吴京.
Set on a Hong Kong island, the directing debut of Mainland martial artist Wu Jing is a real curate’s egg.
Hong Kong, the present day. After having a meal at his favourite restaurant, and collecting a holdall from the owner (Hui Yinghong), Bu (Wu Jing) visits the grave of a recently deceased western woman, Audrey White. He then takes a ferry to an outlying island, where he kills ganglord Ma Tianshou (Kou Zhanwen) and cuts off his head. Finding the ferry service has been suspended due to an approaching typhoon, he wanders around trying to find a restaurant that’s still open and bumps into local policewoman Xiaohe (Lu Jingshan), whom he catches when she falls from a tree while trying to rescue her cat. He tells her he’s a bowling instructor who is on a short holiday on the island. She takes him to her favourite noodle stall, which the flamboyant owner (Zheng Zhongji) always keeps open; there they hear on the radio that three bank robbers are thought to hiding out in the islands. Xiaohe confronts three suspicious-looking men at a nearby table and, after a fight in which Bu helps her, arrests them. At the local police station, headed by Guan Gong (Xu Shaoxiong), Bu is hailed as a hero for helping to crack such a high-profile case, though one young policeman, Taishan (Sen Mei), is jealous of Xiaohe’s liking for Bu. Meanwhile, a group of Ma Tianshou’s men, led by Fat Rong (Lin Xue), has already arrived from Hong Kong and, on the orders of his Japanese widow (Aoyama Noriko), are searching for both his missing head and his murderer. After a celebration meal at the police station, Bu and Xiaohe spend some time together but are broken up by Taishan. Bu goes off to find a hotel; Xiaohe and Taishan go on night patrol, during which they discover Ma Tianshou’s body at the temple. After they take it back to the police station, Taishan convinces his colleagues that Bu has some connection to the case, much to Xiaohe’s disappointment. The police station is then invaded by angry members of Ma Tianshou’s gang, demanding his body back; during the battle, one young cop (Fang Lishen) is shot dead. The next day police from Hong Kong arrive, led by a senior inspector (Zheng Haonan). Just as he about to board the ferry back to Hong Kong, Bu is stopped and his holdall searched.
The directing debut of Mainland action figure Wu Jing 吴京, Legendary Assassin 狼牙 is a real curate’s egg – a superior B-movie, shot in Mandarin in Hong Kong with a local crew, that’s a reasonable platform for the Beijing-born martial artist but one in which the stunts aren’t that special and Wu is consistently outshone by the rest of the cast, especially first-time actress Lu Jingshan 卢靖姗 [Celina Jade]. Seemingly taking its cue from the story’s setting – a sleepy outlying island in Hong Kong – the film is shot and paced more like a drama than an action movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Hong Kong’s Feng Zhiqiang 冯志强, a regular collaborator with film-maker Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow], is lazily plotted (what happened to the typhoon?) and has dialogue that’s as thin as the thumbnail plot. Also, any attempt to make the film more than just a routine action/crime outing is undercut by the black hole of Wu’s taciturn, low-wattage anti-hero.
On the surface, the 2008 film looks like an attempt by Wu – then 34 and with a career stalling in lead roles in Hong Kong B-fodder (Drunken Monkey 醉马骝, 2003; Fatal Contact 黑拳, 2006) or impressive bits in other people’s movies (SPL 杀破狼, 2005) – to take charge of his career. But Assassin is actually co-credited to Hong Kong action director Li Zhongzhi 李忠志 [Nicky Li], then 44, a veteran of 20 years’ standing, and former head of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team 成家班. The irony is that, whereas Wu has gone on to direct two more films (Wolf Warrior 战狼, 2015; Wolf Warrior II 战狼II, 2017), Assassin is still Li’s only directing credit, supporting the theory that, as co-action director on the film, he also took a co-directing credit to balance Wu’s lead-actor one. Whatever the truth of who did what, it’s still a “Wu Jing film”, packaged by Hong Kong’s Gold Label Entertainment to showcase him and other then-clients including singer-model Lu, singer-actor Fang Lishen 方力申 [Alex Fong Lik-sun] and comedian Zheng Zhongji 郑中基 [Ronald Cheng].
With Wu a low-key lead, and the Hong Kong supports doing their usual schtick – Zheng as a crazed noodle-stall owner, Sen Mei 森美 as a jealous rival to Wu, Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet] as a wheezing gangster, Xu Shaoxiong 许绍雄 as the bluff chief cop, etc – it’s Lu who stands out as the freshest thing in the movie. The Hong Kong-born, half-Chinese daughter of US martial artist Roy Horan (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow 蛇形刁手, 1978), Lu, then 23, has an open, ingenuous appeal that gives the otherwise formulaic film some heart, though she’s paddling upstream the whole time to give the putative love story with Wu’s character any traction. Surprisingly, Lu’s big-screen career basically went nowhere until Wu cast her, almost a decade later, as his leading lady in Wolf Warrior II.
Considering the film has two of Hong Kong’s top action directors – Li and Huang Weiliang 黄伟亮 [Jack Wong] – the fights are only okay, showcasing Wu’s typically tight, whiplash style but not to any great waah! effect until the rain-drenched finale, where he takes on 100 of the villainess’ heavies. Among the top key crew – way above the normal level for a genre throwaway – the naturalistic photography of smalltown island life by d.p. Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun] stands out, as does the unusually detailed symphonic score by Huang Yinghua 黄英华 [Raymond Wong Ying-wah] that adds some drama and emotion to the images, especially given the strangely relaxed editing by Qiu Zhiwei 邱志伟 [Yau Chi-wai].
The Chinese title means “Wolf Tooth”, starting an identification with the animal that Wu has continued in his films as a director-star and seemingly stems from the Chinese title of SPL (which contains the character for “wolf” 狼). Mainland box office for Assassin was an invisible RMB4.2 million.
Presented by Shanghai Seasonal Film (CN), Gold Label Entertainment (HK).
Script: Feng Zhiqiang. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Qiu Zhiwei [Yau Chi-wai]. Music: Huang Yinghua [Raymond Wong Ying-wah]. Art direction: Chen Jinhe [Raymond Chan]. Costume design: Zhang Shijie [Stanley Cheung]. Sound: Liang Zongwei, Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Li Yaoqiang. Action: Nicky Li [Li Zhongzhi], Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong]. Visual effects: Zhao Weijun.
Cast: Wu Jing (Bu), Lu Jingshan [Celina Jade] (Xiaohe/Holly), Aoyama Noriko (Sasaki Miho, Ma Tianshou’s wife), Fang Lishen [Alex Fong Lik-sun] (Liang Bao/Pretty Bao/Handson), Zheng Zhongji [Ronald Cheng] (Feng Zhiqiang, noodle-stall owner), Sen Mei (Taishan/Tarzan), Xu Shaoxiong (Guan Gong/Grant), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Fat Rong), Zheng Haonan (Yu, police inspector), Lu Huiguang [Ken Lo] (bank robbers’ leader), Tian Qiwen (Bai Zha/Jellyfish), Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] (restaurateur), Kou Zhanwen (Ma Tianshou/Timothy, gang leader), Zhang Shengyi (Xiaoming), Jiang Baocheng, Chen Xingqiang (other bank robbers), Hou Huanling (Maggie), Tan Tianbao (Mrs. Robinson).
Release: China, 11 Dec 2008; Hong Kong, 4 Dec 2008.