Martial arts fans relishing the chance of seeing Jet Li square off against an assortment of villainous screen legends under Corey Yuen's action direction may well be left disappointed, as Badges of Fury really wants to be a goofy comedy vehicle for Wen Zhang and Michelle Chen.
On paper, Badges of Fury seems to have all the ingredients of an old school Hong Kong action classic, with Jet Li playing the grizzled partner to Wen Zhang's rookie as they tear around Hong Kong on the trail of a prolific serial killer. The cast boasts a number of proven martial arts stars, including Wu Jing, Collin Chou and Bruce Leung, sharing the screen with a host of cameo appearances from hot young talent like Huang Xiaoming, Stephen Fung and Tong Dawei, while first time director Wong Tsz Ming is ably supported by revered action director Corey Yuen.
Sadly, instead of being a high octane cop thriller, Badges of Fury is first and foremost a comedy - an incredibly broad one at that - following Wen Zhang's young detective Wang Bu Er as he gurns and pratfalls his way through a multiple murder case. After the victims are all identified as former lovers of aspiring actress Liu Jin Shiu (Liu Shishi), suspicion soon falls on her voluptuous, predatory sister, Dai Yi Yi (Liu Yan). There is talk of a curse, jealous lovers and poison darts, but much of that is obscured by Wang incessantly flirting with both sisters as well as his new commanding officer, Angela (Michelle Chen).
Each murder victim avails a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo opportunity for actors like Michael Tse and Tong Dawei, while random suspects, supervisors and witnesses are portrayed by everyone from Stephy Tang to Huang Xiaoming, although nobody is onscreen for more than a couple of minutes. Stephen Fung fares slightly better as a jilted former admirer of the perennially engaged Liu, which brings us to the seasoned kung-fu veterans whose participation has been widely publicised in the film's marketing.
Despite getting top billing alongside Wen Zhang, Jet Li can't be onscreen for more than 30 minutes in total, and his character has almost no bearing on the outcome of the story. At various points it is called upon for the cops to engage in hand-to-hand combat with an assortment of nefarious characters, prompting all investigations to cease while Li appears and fights Collin Chou or Wu Jing or Bruce Leung.
Whether staged in a stairwell, a cramped apartment or a bamboo theatre, however, the fights themselves are a bit of a letdown considering who is involved both in front of and behind the camera. They represent far and away the best moments in the film, but director Wong has set that bar disappointingly low, and Yuen & Co aren't exactly challenged to do better.
Elsewhere there is plenty of stunt work and action on display, but there is such an obvious over-reliance on CGI, compositing, wirework and speed-ramping that almost none of it impresses, and for many will prove more of an irritation than a pleasure. Many of these moments are also played for laughs, complete with aural punctuation more at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon than an action film - suffice to say there is precious little fury on display in Badges of Fury.
There is one further gripe, however, that eclipses everything else, and that is in the film's casting. While made with money from mainland China, Badges of Fury takes place entirely within the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the preferred spoken language - most certainly within the police force. However, almost all the lead actors in the film - Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Michelle Chen, and Liu Shishi - are native Mandarin speakers, all of whom hail from either the mainland or Taiwan.
True enough, the distinction between Hong Kong Cinema and Chinese Cinema has become increasingly difficult to see in recent years, but to witness it being so flagrantly discarded the way it is in Badges of Fury should spread genuine concern. To see what should be a wholly Hong Kong story assimilated without acknowledgement into a mainland Chinese sensibility suggests that the days of mainstream Hong Kong movie-making - as something genuinely different to what is being produced en masse north of the border - are well and truly numbered.