Martial arts master Hung Hey-Kwan (Jet Li) and his equally skilled seven year old son Hung Man-Ting (Xie Miao) are Ming patriots, fighting for the Heaven and Earth Society against the tyrannical government. After avenging his wife’s death, Hung and his boy become fugitives eluding ruthless officials and Shaolin traitors until hired as bodyguards to a wealthy oaf and his bratty son. Also living under the rich man’s roof is comely con artist Red Bean (Chingamy Yau), who plans to fleece him of his wealth while her feisty mother (Deannie Ip) poses as a corpse in the barn. Red Bean beguiles the younger Hung even as she irks his morally upright dad, but soon grows enamoured with the stoic hero.
Meanwhile at Shaolin temple, five little boys are tattooed with portions of a treasure map. When assembled, the map reveals the location of a fortune in gold which the Heaven and Earth Society need to fund their efforts. Father and son, with would-be love interest Red Bean and squabbling mom in tow, try to protect the five children from ninja assassins led by a corrupt official (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) and an evil monk, but come up against an old enemy reborn as the Poisonous Monster (Chen Sung-Yung), an incredible melting man who rides around in a hi-tech, projectile-shooting, silver shark-finned car!
After achieving stardom with Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and its sequels, Jet Li briefly fell out with his mentor Tsui Hark and signed with notorious schlock writer-producer-director Wong Jing. Their partnership got off to a strong start with the superb Fong Sai Yuk (1993) and Fong Sai Yuk II (1993) - produced by Wong but directed by ace fight choreographer Corey Yuen and scripted by comedy auteur Jeff Lau - but then lapsed into a string of goofy, albeit entertaining and hugely profitable movies. There was Last Hero in China (1993) wherein Jet donned beak and feathers to pioneer funky chicken kung fu, the near-incomprehensible spoof fantasy epic Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), and the infamous Speed (1994) rip-off-cum-snakes-in-a-skyscraper thriller-cum-anti-Jackie Chan satire, High Risk (1995). And then there was New Legend of Shaolin, a wild and wacky take-off of an oft-told historical yarn. Hung Hey-Kwan was a Shaolin folk hero while in another in-joke each of his young charges here grew up to be celebrated historical figures.
In typical style, Wong Jing dispenses with any pretence at a history lesson in favour of outlandish set-pieces where wild camerawork chases Corey Yuen’s edge-of-your-seat action choreography, childish humour in line with the Shaolin Popeye series of children’s films popular at the time, and cheeky rip-offs of martial arts classics. An early scene where Hung asks his infant son to choose between the sword and a wooden toy horse is stolen from Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) a.k.a. Shogun Assassin and there is the “poison drips down a thread” ninja trick pioneered in Shinobi no Mono (1962), though popularised by the James Bond movie: You Only Live Twice (1967). Wong also restages the celebrated “embroidery kung fu” bout from Yuen Woo Ping’s marvellous Dreadnaught (1981), albeit laced with flirtier banter between Hung and Red Bean. Jet Li lends his usual gravitas and exemplary martial skill to the rigidly upright, and frankly often uptight Hung, and is matched by remarkably stoic child actor Xie Miao. An astounding acrobat, young Xie looks like he could convincingly thrash men twice his age. He was cast again as Jet Li’s son in Corey Yuen’s My Father is a Hero (1995).
The film weaves fairly potent themes about brotherhood and betrayal, with Hung repeatedly sold-out by his more morally pragmatic compatriots. It contrasts the father and son team, who live by an inflexible code, with the mother and daughter who live by their wits, but while avaricious are capable of decency. Once again Wong Jing cast his then-girlfriend Chingamy Yau in a pivotal role. She may have been his casting couch favourite, but luckily Yau had a charismatic screen presence and deft comedic skills to go with her girl-next-door sex appeal. Her flirty heroine is quite a delight and, as always, she throws herself into the action with gusto. Stealing the show however is singer and actress Deannie Ip, who gives a poignant tragicomic performance as an aging martial arts heroine given one last chance to strut her stuff.
Wong Jing’s approach to filmmaking is to throw whatever he can at the screen in the hope some of it sticks: costume drama, movie parody, action, horror, bad taste. There is even a surreal interlude where the heroes hide out in a village populated by life-sized (and seemingly living) wax dolls made by an insane puppeteer with a secret to hide. While the end results are inevitably hit-and-miss, the film has some funny gags, the action is top-notch (ninjas burst from giant flying silver balls or ride flying buzzsaw shields) and Wong redeems himself with an incredible finale that finds Man-Ting stood on daddy’s shoulders battling the Poisonous Man while Red Bean and the children are suspended over a vat of boiling oil. Wong also cameos in the closing scene as the token fat kid’s equally clumsy father.