Donnie Yen plays a convicted murderer sprung from jail to help track down a serial killer targeting martial arts masters in Teddy Chen's appreciably nostalgic action thriller. While Yen wisely gifts the lion's share of the fighting to opposite number Wang Baoqiang, Kung Fu Jungle also serves as a reverential ode to the local industry, and something of a swan song for Donnie as Hong Kong's foremost action hero.
Ha Hou Mo (Donnie Yen) is champion of Hong Kong's most respected martial arts sect, but turns himself over to the police after accidentally killing his latest rival. Three years later, the fatal beating of a martial arts master inspires Ha to demand a meeting with investigating officer Luk Yuen Sum (Charlie Young). Revealing that he knows not only the identities of the killer's next intended victims, and perhaps that of the assailant himself, Ha all but forces Luk to have him released into her custody. Soon, the bodies of more fighting aces are piling up, while Ha and Luk are hot on the heels of prime suspect Fung Yu Sau (Wang Baoqiang), a club-footed nobody dedicated to martial arts. Before it's all over, however, dark secrets will be unearthed that will pit Ha and Fung on a collision course to the death.
While that may be the plot of Teddy Chen's Kung Fu Jungle, reuniting him with his Bodyguards and Assassins star Donnie Yen, it's not what the film is really about. It is no secret to fans of Hong Kong cinema that true fame came a little late for Donnie Yen, who at 51 years of age has already seen his best years - physically at least - pass him by. The last decade has fortunately brought the actor a slew of commercial, and even critical successes, but the time has now come to think about the future. While we will definitely be seeing Yen in plenty more action-oriented films for many years to come - the Crouching Tiger sequel is currently in production and Yen is attached to a slew of others, including a third Ip Man film - he is definitely stepping away from the front line, so to speak.
While Yen gets top billing as well as credit as action director on Kung Fu Jungle, his character Ha Hou Mo is very much "retired" from fighting. A former champion, Ha states on more than one occasion that due to his incarceration he's out of shape and unprepared to take on the murderously talented Fung. Whether narratively that is true or not, during the course of the film it is Wang Baoqiang who participates in most of the film's numerous kung fu sequences, rather than Yen. Determined to beat each of the city's champions at their preferred discipline, Wang must perform a variety of different styles, from grappling to pole fighting - and win each encounter.
Fans of Hong Kong martial arts will delight at the number of stars from past and present who litter the screen during Kung Fu Jungle. From contemporary fighting performers like Xing Yu and Fan Siu Wong, to past masters including Yuen Cheung Yan and even Lau Kar Leung (albeit on TV). But the film's desire to acknowledge and pay respect to the accomplished artists of Hong Kong Cinema extends way beyond martial artists, with everyone from Andrew Lau and Soi Cheang to Bruce Law and Derek Kwok popping up in blink-and-you'll-miss-em cameos throughout the film. And don't worry if you don't spot them all, as they are all name-checked - even those who failed to make the final cut - in the film's closing credits.
Fortunately, when Fung and Ha finally do get to fight each other in the film's climax it proves well worth the wait, taking place at night on a busy highway, making deadly use of a pair of bamboo scaffolding poles. The film also closes with a telling coda about Ha's - and by extension Yen's - mindset in the aftermath of Kung Fu Jungle and everything it has addressed. Things get a little meta, and it's all in the film's favour.
Yen does a decent job of carrying the drama in a mostly non-physical role, portraying a proficient yet peaceful man thrown into perilous circumstances seemingly beyond his control. We will likely see him take on many more similar roles in the future - formerly violent men struggling to live out their lives peacefully - and here he seems more comfortable when not fighting than he's ever been.
Wang Baoqiang always has a certain feral quality about him, and as the unhinged Fung, determined to see martial arts used as a deadly fighting force rather than as mere sport, he seems perfectly cast. Physically, Kung Fu Jungle is an incredible vehicle to show off his impressive athleticism and diversity. Wang has only recently been availed such opportunities, but after his scene-stealing turn here it seems he has finally arrived as the action star he always dreamt of becoming. Elsewhere in the cast, Charlie Young is solid, if underused, as Yen's cop chaperone, while Michelle Bai is also serviceable as Ha's love interest Sinn Ying - although she at least is gifted a brief but memorable sword fight.
Technically there is little to complain about, save for a few jarring intrusions of CGI to assist some of the vehicular stunt work towards the end of the film. The script, credited to at least four writers, is riddled with holes and fundamental lapses in logic that may have more discerning viewers screaming at the screen in outraged disbelief, but Kung Fu Jungle fulfils its promise of old-school entertainment so passionately and honestly, to pick apart its flaws almost feels cruel.
While Soi Cheang's The Monkey King may have proved a huge commercial success for Donnie Yen at the start of the year, critically he's appeared in a string of misfires in recent years, with films like Special ID and Iceman failing to impress. Thankfully, Kung Fu Jungle sees Yen right his career trajectory and steer it precisely where it needs to go for the foreseeable future. Fast-paced, packed with action and firmly routed in Hong Kong's singular cinematic sensibility, Kung Fu Jungle is Donnie Yen's best film in years, and while far from perfect, should strike a welcome familiar chord with his fans and aficionados of Hong Kong Cinema everywhere - which is all he ever wanted anyway.