Lao San is a young veteran high in Kungfu power but low in intelligence. After landing on a job as a body guard for a wealthy antique collector, Lao San finds out his boss's plot to rob the National Art Museum.
Not many may have heard of writer/director Ding Sheng, but it says something when only his third feature film in a decade would be Jackie Chan’s big-budget period action movie “Little Big Soldier” due in cinemas this Chinese New Year. “The Underdog Knight” was Ding Sheng’s second feature, and it is produced by no less than infamous Hong Kong producer Wong Jing. Yes, Wong Jing, the Wong Jing behind the entertaining “God of Gamblers”, the passably entertaining “Kung Fu Mahjong”, and the dreadfully unentertaining “On His Majesty’s Secret Service”.
What is Wong Jing doing producing a film like this? Even after watching the film, we don’t really know. We suspect though that it’s not for the better- for the product is an uneven film that can’t decide whether it wants to be dark and gritty a la “Taxi Driver” or sweet and sentimental a la “Forrest Gump”. Indeed, “The Underdog Knight” has been compared to both films. The reality however is more of a middling in-between.
There are three separate story threads in “The Underdog Knight” though comparisons to “Taxi Driver” or “Forrest Gump” come from the first- that of discharged naval officer Lao San (Liu Ye). After staying in the water too long trying to save a drowning comrade, Lao San is pronounced brain damaged. His underwater days over, he turns to prowling the streets to right the wrongs he sees. Through his monologues, Lao San reveals himself to be a self-appointed enforcer of the law.
The second story is of antique thief Dragon (Anthony Wong), a Hong Kong mafia hitman with ethics. He’s here to steal the Dragon Tear, a priceless spear going on exhibition at the Qingdao Antiquities Museum. The last is of local police captain Jiang (You Yong), who ends up on the kidnapping case of which Dragon is the mastermind of. These three disparate story strands are told just as fractitiously as they sound here, as Ding Sheng switches from one story to another with little hint of continuity.
Audiences will have to wait till the last third of the film to see where Ding Sheng’s movie is heading- and the wait is a rather restive one. Liu Ye’s mentally challenged underdog hero character- despite having the most screen time- turns up surprisingly one-dimensional as one never learns why justice is his sole mantra. One also never gets to understand why Anthony Wong’s Dragon is a villain with his professional code of ethics nor You Yong’s dogged obsession with catching his partner’s killer.
When it all comes together, the payoff turns up underwhelming. Indeed, as each of their respective character arcs are lacking in depth, their culmination in a hostage standoff drama isn’t as involving as it should be. More convenient than inspired, the ending is also marred by a heavy dose of political correctness that Mainland Chinese films seem unable to escape from, so much so that one becomes increasingly dissatisfied by the unfolding turn of events.
Action junkies need not bother as well, since the film doesn’t have offer much by way of thrilling action sequences as well. Its only saving grace comes in Liu Ye’s intense and hardworking performance, one that deserves to belong in a much better film. As it is, “The Underdog Knight” is neither enjoyable mainstream fare nor quality arthouse drama but an odd mishmash of both.
SPECIAL FEATURES :
This Code 3 DVD contains no extra features.
The Dolby 2.0 audio does just fine for the film’s talky bits- and there is more than you’d expect. Visual transfer is fine but could do with some sharpening here and there. The English subtitles though could do with a lot more sharpening as many subtitles appear incomplete.
by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 5 January 2010