Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa are two of cinema’s best action stars, but both men have seen a rough few years on screen. Yen had his solid 2011 film, Wu Xia, get lost down the Weinstein Company rabbit hole and then delivered three movies in a row (Special ID, The Monkey King, Iceman) that obscured his fighting talents behind CG, wire work and costume shenanigans. Jaa meanwhile had a very public breakdown while filming 2010’s Ong Bak 3 which left him in the wind (or in the jungle according to reports) before finally returning last year with the terribly underwhelming CG-fest of The Protector 2.
Neither man is in his physical prime anymore – although they could obviously still kick our collective asses – but if their latest releases are any indication they have no plans on throwing the towel in any time soon.
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Two cops on opposite ends of the Earth are brought together to take down a Serbian crime family profiting off the international skin trade – the trafficking of girls and young women for sexual purposes – but their partnership begins as something far more cantankerous.
Tony (Tony Jaa) is fighting bad guys as a detective in Thailand with a focus on the abductions occurring in his own backyard. Women are kidnapped off the streets or in some cases sold into slavery by their parents, and with the help of his girlfriend Min (Celina Jade) he works to arrest (or occasionally kill) the men responsible. Nick (Dolph Lundgren) meanwhile is a New Jersey cop working the other end of the pain train as the abducted women arrive in America as sex slaves. His latest case has him crossing paths with Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) who strikes back at the cop by killing his wife and teenage daughter. Distraught and oblivious to the two bullets in his back, Nick heads overseas to track the man down and exact his revenge.
Nick and Tony are on the same side, but their initial interactions see them as enemies thanks to the American’s blood-lust and a frame-up that makes it appear as if he’s killed Tony’s partner. Is it a bit contrived? Sure, but it also allows for some chase scenes and brawls between our two leads as they work out the misunderstanding, and that’s good for everyone involved.
Jaa is still lightning-fast and insanely flexible, and the film sees him facing off with a variety of opponents ranging from “giants” like Lundgren to baddies closer to his own size. His preference is still for blistering attacks with his knees and elbows, but he displays no shortage of spins, kicks and punches in his arsenal. There’s probably a minimal amount of wire work here, but the vast majority of his fights are just Jaa being Jaa, and it’s exciting to see him back in action. His brawls with Lundgren and another big guy recall the fight at the end of The Protector as he seems to bounce off their towering forms before finding their weak spots.
Lundgren doesn’t fare as well on the action front as he’s a far less convincing fighter these days – running isn’t really his strong suit either – but he remains a fun performer to watch. The film is reportedly his dream project with a cause close to his heart, so he deserves credit for pulling it all together. The supporting cast also includes Peter Weller and Michael Jai White, and while we don’t get enough of either we are treated to some fantastic fighting from the latter. (Which reminds me, when can we expect Black Dynamite 2?!)
The film does consist of familiar story beats and makes no attempt to dress up its narrative, and neither logic nor award-worthy performances are the focus here. Jaa gets some English practice in and manages to avoid embarrassing himself, but none of the actors manage much in the way of convincing emotion.
Skin Trade is an action picture through and through, but that doesn’t stop it from taking its subject seriously. A harrowing opening sequence sets the stage for the very real tragedy of human trafficking, and the movie avoids exploiting it through gratuitous imagery. The girls are treated as sex objects by the villains but not by the film itself. It’s not a dour affair though as the script’s B-grade sensibilities ensure the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and one area where the script unexpectedly shines is an ending which completes the story, respects the reality of loss and sets up a sequel I sincerely hope we get to see.
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Well Go USA
Kung Fu Killer
A man is found dead in a violent, mysterious fashion, and when a befuddled police force receives a call from an incarcerated martial artist offering to help the investigation they’re left with little option but to say yes.
Hahao Mo (Donnie Yen) is serving time for accidentally killing a man in a fight three years prior, but when he sees a news report on the unsolved murder he realizes he might be the key to catching the killer. It seems the victim was a martial arts master familiar to him and when a second body turns up the pattern becomes clear. Someone is killing masters of various techniques – grappling, weapons, etc – and Mo not only knows who’s next to die but may also know the killer’s identity as well.
So yes, this is basically a kung fu version of Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
Director Teddy Chan returns from a five year hiatus – his last film was 2009’s Bodyguards and Assassins, also starring Yen – with a fast-paced, contemporary action picture that thrills with some spectacular fight sequences. Yen fans won’t be disappointed, but it’s worth pointing out that he’s not the main action draw here. That honor belongs to Wang Bauqiang as the villain who takes part in multiple battles, each with a different focus, on his way to an end brawl with Yen. He impresses throughout with a fiercely aggressive style that punishes his opponents while delighting our eyeballs.
Yen gets his hands dirty a few times here starting with an opening free-for-all between Chinese UPS drivers – they’re actually prisoners in brown uniforms, but the alternative is funnier – but the infrequency of his fights don’t affect their quality. He proves himself a fast and scrappy fighter even at the age of 51, and his mix of rapid-fire punches and MMA-style take-downs never fails to entertain and thrill.
Unsurprisingly, the script is more than a little ridiculous at times as silly plot points become commonplace, and some weak (and excessive) CG work towards the end distracts from an otherwise strong fight sequence. Thankfully though neither issue is as prevalent as they were in the last few Yen films. They’re also balanced out by the film’s subtle and not-so subtle nods to Hong Kong cinema and those who made/make it what it is. Cameos are strewn throughout, both present in the film and via TV screens or posters, and the end credits feature an extended acknowledgement towards these numerous talents.
Kung Fu Killer is flawed in its script and third-act CG usage, but it’s still Yen’s best feature since Flash Point thanks to a charismatic villain and some thrilling fights. It’s an exciting watch, but more than that it’s a respectful appreciation of Hong Kong cinema and all those who came before.