Here’s a new sci-fi/kung fu hybrid that’s honestly not up to my standards of martial arts movie quality – to be fair it was made for cable and a streaming service in China – but it’s such a joyfully ludicrous storyline that I can’t help but sort of recommend it if you’re ever in a b-movie mood. It stars Tiger Chen (from Keanu Reeves’ excellent MAN OF TAI CHI and Jesse V. Johnson’s upcoming TRIPLE THREAT) and it can best be described as a cross between a TERMINATOR movie and a period kung fu movie like, say, FEARLESS starring Jet Li.
It opens in a future where aliens have conquered much of the earth. Chen plays a general in a military force that’s fighting back. He and his partner (Wang Zhi, DRUG WAR) are out in the field battling some aliens when he’s able to defeat one of them using kung fu.
This is the craziest part of the movie, reminding me of BEYOND SKYLINE, where the RAID guys fought against tall alien monster guys. There they got to use animatronic suit effects, here it’s digital, looking like a very ambitious SyFy Channel premiere. But, I mean, I can’t not enjoy shit like this:
He also has a robot arm that goes over one of his regular arms.
They survive the battle, but time is running out for human civilization. Luckily his partner (who I will have to call Zhi, because I didn’t write down the character’s name and it’s not on IMDb) has a suggestion:
The general believes this will work if said robots can master the specific southern style kung fu that he has determined “can defeat the aliens in close-quarters combat.” But he’s not that good at it, he kind of got lucky, they would have to learn from someone better than him. So, hey, just throwing out ideas here, but what if we make a lookalike robot of me and send it back in time to learn from one of the great masters of southern kung fu and then hide a memory chip behind a brick in what we now know as ancient ruins so we can transfer the skills to our army of robots in the present and save the human race in pretty much the most awesome way possible (kung fu robots)?
So that’s what they do, and Zhi (who loves the general, but also apparently can settle for a robot version of him) decides to sacrifice herself by taking a one way ticket to the past to be the robot’s tech support. She spends most of the movie on the sidelines, looking at holographic displays and adjusting the robot’s preferences (she has to set the levels of memory allocated to learning, emotions, etc.) They have to not change history, and they also follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (translated as “Principles”), so one of the challenges of the mission is to do it without harming a human being, because violating the principles would cause him to self-destruct.
So although the DVD packaging is all about futuristic armor and weaponry and fighting aliens and shit, most of the movie is a historical kung fu drama. The good news is that Chen looks more at home in the period trappings. I don’t know if I want a whole movie where he has this futuristic hairstyle:
Calling himself Jie, the robot has to convince a particular southern kung fu master to take him on as a student. And of course while he’s there he gets involved in various subplots: a girl likes him, a masked man is going around causing trouble, a clearly evil dude with long hair and round glasses comes into town to challenge the school, something about an emperor and French troops and what not.
Him being a robot figures into it less than I might’ve hoped, but he does eventually reveal his machinery innards to the master, who is surprisingly understanding about it. The robo-problem I like best is that he’s told he has to “understand mountains and rivers and the sun and the moon” to reach the highest level of Southern kung fu, and that’s extra challenging for a guy made of metal and 1s and 0s. Luckily Zhi can go into the menu and crank his emotions up a little. She just has to find that sweet spot where it’s enough emotion to understand mountains and rivers and the sun and the moon, but not enough to get too attached to the people here and lose sight of the mission from the future. You know how it is.
What keeps me from loving the movie is that the fights are only okay. The camera is often too close or cuts too fast to really show off the fighters, but looks pretty boring and TV-like. According to the credits, the action director is Shu Jian (can’t find on IMDb) with “choreography consultant” or “action consultant” 87Eleven, the JOHN WICK guys. It definitely doesn’t have the energy of the movies we love them for.
It does get better at the climax. There’s a villain who turns out to be (SPOILER) possessed by an alien projecting his consciousness from the future. That mostly means his face flash-morphs into bumpy alien face occasionally, but he gets claws in one part. Also he inspires a funny line: “His punch… it corresponds with the greediness and aggression of westerners,” whatever that means. Anyway there is some fun wire work, they fight while running up a wall and stuff.
If you’re expecting a big final act where they execute the final plan of saving the world with kung fu robots… don’t. We just get a handful of (very cool) shots to portray that. I’d like to see more of this type of mo-cap:
And it looks like I’ll get to, because they already made a part 2.
A Variety article about a North American theatrical release calls director Xian Feng a “Chinese veteran,” but he has no other credits on IMDb. Maybe he’s from the future.