At the turn of the century China is in turmoil, rife with corruption and political unrest. On their journey hoping to convince the Emperor to enact sweeping social reforms, nobleman Tang Tzu-Tung (Ti Lung) and his feisty sidekick Nine Catties (Cynthia Khan) stumble into a battle between brutal bandits and relentless Imperial guardsmen led by ambitious captain, Yuan Shi-Kai (Chiu Cheung-Gwan, in real life one of China's most celebrated martial arts champions). Coming to the aid of poor peasants caught in the crossfire, Master Tang and Nine Catties are aided by a buff blacksmith with remarkable kung fu skills. Tang discovers the mysterious blacksmith is none other than Wang Wu (Yeung Fan), former leader of the patriotic Black Flag Group, in hiding since their failed uprising against the Japanese army.
At Tang's request, Wang Wu and his scowling kung fu kid sidekick Cho Sam establish a martial arts school in the city to lift the spirits of the people and spur them to enact social change. Wang Wu's heroic exploits earn him the admiration of a beautiful noblewoman (Rosamund Kwan) but also the enmity of corrupt regent Lord Yee (Wong Kam-Kong), pompous martial arts champion Master Po (James Tin Jun) and all-round scheming git Wonder Hand Ngo Pai (Lau Shun, the monk with elastic earlobes in A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)). Meanwhile, Yuan Shi-Kai worries his friends' reformist zeal could cost him a promotion. Eventually when Lord Yee tries to have Wang Wu executed, Tang mobilizes his allies to force the Empress Dowager out of power so the young and willing Emperor can enact their reforms. Unfortunately blind ambition, jealousy and betrayal ensure everything goes to hell.
Legendary Hong Kong actor-director Sammo Hung spent much of the Eighties crafting crowd-pleasing action comedies. However, the period martial arts boom sparked by Once Upon a Time in China (1991) in the early Nineties enabled Hung to deliver his most ambitious, nuanced and most interestingly, politically-charged film since the early classic Prodigal Son (1981). Often overlooked by critics too quick to dismiss the genre as chop-socky nonsense, there is a strong tradition of political martial arts films. From key works by pioneering maestro King Hu to Lau Kar-Leung's impassioned Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) and a string of Shaw Brothers-produced epics about failed rebellions, e.g. The Lady Assassin (1982) and Usurpers of Emperors' Power (1984). Working in this tradition Hung spins a labyrinthine saga full of historical intrigue, sociopolitical outrage and among the most spectacularly visceral action ever staged. Bodies are split in half or blown apart while heads, limbs and even ears are sent flying every which way throughout the exhilarating set-pieces.
Interwoven with the carnage is an anguished and surprisingly affecting drama detailing a debate between Tang's belief in flexibility, change and progressive ideals and Yuan's stubborn adherence to the laws lain down by the status quo. It is a bleak yet romantic story of idealism undone by cynical old egomaniacs hopelessly set in their ways. Brilliantly paced with an epic sweep enhanced by the sumptuous sunset cinematography of Raymond Lam, who went from HK actioners to mainland epics such as Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Jackie Chan's ambitiously offbeat Little Big Soldier (2010), the plot boldly switches focus from one character after another. Hong Kong superstar Ti Lung ably embodies the humanistic and righteous Tang Tzu-Tung, who puts people above politics, and In the Light of Duty staple Cynthia Khan, though unconvincing as a boy given she is a former Miss Hong Kong, delights as motormouth badass Nine Catties. Yet the two established stars actually offer supporting turns to the film's real lead, the lesser known Yeung Fan who handles both the romantic subplot and the bulk of the action. If there is a problem it is that Ti Lung and Cynthia Khan are more fun to watch. Their final scene together is especially powerful and well acted. As a hero Wang Wu sends rather mixed messages, veering from progressive to reactionary as the plot demands. While Yeung Fan lacks the faceted charisma of Ti Lung, he suits his stoic role well enough and remains an undeniably impressive martial artist. Also worth noting is the sadly uncredited child actor who portrays Cho Sam, both remarkably intense and a gifted acrobat. Sammo Hung himself cameos as Hawkeye, the most fearsome guard at the Imperial prison who fights Wang Wu in a blistering wire fu sequence though his arrival and exit are so abrupt as to be comical. Nonetheless, Blade of Fury shows Sammo the director could handle gut-wrenching drama as well as he could stage an exciting action sequence.
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.