Penniless kung fu Olympian, Kong Ko (Wu Jing) is lured into the shadowy world of underground boxing, hoping to earn enough money to secure a bright future. Aided by savvy girlfriend Tin (Miki Yeung Oi Gan), a tough cookie always ready to haggle, and street punk “Captain” (Ronald Cheng), who hides sharp martial arts skills behind his goofy demeanour, Ko rips through the top fighters on the circuit to become number one. Making sleazy triad bosses, Fai (Kris Gu Yu) and Ma Ho Keung (Eddie Cheung) a whole lot richer along the way. Eventually, Ko is ordered to throw a fight or risk Ting being killed.
Don’t let that painfully generic, straight to video, chop-socky title fool you. Writer-producer-director Dennis Law has crafted a bleakly poignant, cautionary fable about poor, mainland immigrants doing anything to get by. The fights are blisteringly fast and brutal, aided by former wushu champion Jacky Wu Jing’s natural athleticism, but it is poverty that proves the most distressing form of violence. “Nobody respects you if you’re poor”, remarks Tin early on, as the unfolding drama reveals street-fighters and women selling their bodies in different ways. In contrast to glossy, Hollywood nonsense like Never Back Down (2008), this deals with the dark underbelly of the fight game, with fighters bullied, exploited and even killed when they’re too badly beaten to fight anymore.
Interwoven with Kong Ko’s rise and fall is a moving subplot detailing the friendship between Ting and struggling hooker Chui Chi (Theresa Fu Wing), which gradually explains the former’s mercenary attitude. While it initially contrasts the kindly, family oriented mainland heroes with the self-serving Hong Kong gangsters, the film throws a wholly unexpected, gut-wrenching twist that leaves us reeling harder than one of Kong Ko’s punches. More than an impressive martial artist, Jacky Wu proves a pretty good actor with winning charisma akin to the young Jackie Chan. Happy go lucky and generous to a fault, if sadly naïve, Ko proves an easy hero to root for. Equally affecting are Theresa Fu Wing (whose character climbs another rung up the social ladder every time we see her, but remains inwardly despondent) and Miki Yeung Oi Gan, who manages to be so much more than a token girlfriend.
Moments of goofy, but genuinely amusing comedy offset the grim drama, most courtesy of a scene-stealing Ronald Cheng and his penchant for magic tricks. Watch out also for the homeless beggar who invites himself to dinner and the frantically funny training session, wherein Tin dons a rubber protective suit as she, Ko, and “Captain” whack the hell out of each other. Jackie Chan’s bodyguard, Ken Lo turns up too, dressed like a Chinese Superfly as triad boss Chan Sun. With cinematography by co-producer/schlock horror director Herman Yau, the fights are well shot and choreographed, especially a three against one bout in cargo liner, but what impresses most is the drama. If you’re expecting a dumb, Van Damme-style kick-fest, you might be pleasantly surprised.