Jet Wong is a young Chinese man who comes to Los Angeles to visit his Uncle Tak. Tak runs a martial arts training school, but is having trouble with a gang who own a rival school and are intent on closing down the competition.
While Jet Li and Tsui Hark’s relationship was cemented by the massive, genre-changing success of 1991’s period martial arts epic Once Upon a Time in China, the pair had previously worked together on this American-based action flick. At that stage Li was a complete unknown, but über-producer Hark clearly saw enough raw talent in him to give him a chance as a leading man; unfortunately he doesn’t really get much opportunity here to demonstrate such talents.
The Master’s story is a mess of ridiculous behaviour and contrived situations. Why are the rival gang so obsessed with closing down Uncle Tak’s kung fu school? And why even after they’ve succeeded in doing that they go all out to kill the poor man? The police are trying to catch gang leader Johnny in the act of fighting, but for some reason ask Jet to help them, even though he speaks no English and has only just arrived in the US for a holiday. Why do none of the cops carry guns? Does Johnny only teach kung fu to fellow villains or does he actually have any nice students? Is there really that much money in martial arts tuition anyway? All of these questions and more remain unanswered.
And why is it that English-speaking actors in Hong Kong movies are always so terrible? Even in top-class product like Once Upon a Time in China or Bullet in the Head the western actors are incredibly wooden, and it seems here that Hark has rounded up LA’s worst unemployed thespians to fill out his cast. Main villain Jerry Trimble is a decent fighter but he’s crippled by one of the ugliest mullets I’ve ever seen, whilst everyone else – from Anne Rickets playing the feisty blonde girl who looks after Uncle Tak to the trio of Chicano goons who follow Jet round everywhere – is just hopeless. Even Jet Li looks uncomfortable outside the action scenes, although he does have an easy chemistry with bilingual love interest Crystal Kwok. Only Yuen Wah, the veteran actor recently seen in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, brings any dignity to his role as Uncle Tak.
Hark is too good a director to mess up the action sequences, and on the odd occasion that he allows his star to perform some martial arts – Jet versus sword-wielding bad guys, a one-on-one with Jerry Trimble on the roof of a cop car – it’s pretty thrilling. But these scenes are over before they’ve begun and perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a more international audience, there is too much bog-standard non-kung fu action.
Like all early films of megastars-to-be, The Master does have curiosity value. It’s interesting that what Tsui Hark was attempting here – putting Jet Li in the gritty, urban setting of a US city – later proved very lucrative for Joel Silver with Li’s breakthrough films Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. But taken on its own terms, this is limp stuff.
Aka: Long Xing Tian Xia
[The film may not be much cop, but Hong Kong Legends have done a decent job with their Region 2 DVD. There's a commentary from the ever-entertaining Bey Logan – who isn't shy of pointing out the film's shortcomings – plus interviews with Crystal Kwok, Tsui Hark and Yuen Wah]
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.