Fifty years ago, Chen Kuan-tai stepped out from the background as an extra and stuntman in Chang Cheh’s stock company to take the lead role in The Boxer from Shantung. Chen played the eponymous boxer, a young man from the country who moves to the city and tries to navigate its various gangs while keeping his honor and integrity intact. Along the way, he gets in a lot of fights. His signature move is punching guys — in the fist. The film was a success, has been remade many times in both film and for television, and as a result, Chen became one of the great Shaw Brothers stars of the 1970s, making a dozen or so classic films with Chang and Lau Kar-leung, and working steadily up to the present. In 2010, Chen was one of the martial arts stars resurrected from obscurity and old age for Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s hit action-comedy, Gallants. Like that film, Legendary in Action! aspires to be an homage to ‘70s Hong Kong cinema. But where Gallants is bursting with ideas, packed with wild performances, clever plot twists, and an undeniable level of goofy energy, Legendary in Action! is earnestly wistful, at times teetering into maudlin, and even unnerving, seriousness.
The feature directing debuts for both Justin Cheung and Li Ho, Legendary in Action is about a director, Bill “Tiger” Cheung (played by Cheung), who, following the failure of his first feature, has fallen into directing titillating ads for would-be social media influencers. But he still remembers a wuxia serial he was obsessed with when he was young, and so he resolves to make a sequel, one that wraps up better than the original did. He lines up a sketchy financier and, during casting, just happens to find Master Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai), the star of the original serial, in the back seat of his car. Dragon is old now, clearly going senile (it’s later revealed he has Alzheimer’s), but gets the starring role anyway. Comical scenes of low-budget filmmaking ensue (particularly fun is the surprisingly spry Dragon knocking the shit out of a bunch of stuntmen and extras who were unprepared for his old-school style and martial ad-libbing). At times, the film looks like it might turn into something as charming as a wuxia Living in Oblivion.
But instead, Legendary in Action! takes a turn for the dramatic, as production on Cheung’s wuxia reboot grinds to a halt: The money disappears, Dragon’s past comes back to haunt him, as his mental condition worsens, and Cheung and his wife have a weirdly lengthy and extremely dramatic argument over his refusal to pay attention to her and their impending child. It all ends more or less happily, of course, and Cheung gives a heartfelt speech about the future of Hong Kong cinema that is more about the state of things as they are post-protests than anything actually in the movie. It’s an admirable enough sentiment, and God knows this film’s heart is in the right place. But aside from the simple joy of watching the now-76 year old Chen Kuan-tai at work, there really isn’t much that’s memorable or interesting to recommend here.
Published as part of NYAFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.