Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung is probably my favorite martial arts movie produced during the 1970s golden age of the Shaw Brothers studio. At the time, Shaw Brothers was the preeminent Hong Kong film studio and certainly the most voluminous in its output. I reviewed quite a few when I took a look at Arrow Video’s Shawscope set, and over the course of this year, I’ve enjoyed digging into 88 Films’ growing catalog of films from the studio (Shaolin Mantis being the best thus far from that company’s line of discs). None of the other dozen-plus films I’ve watched have held a candle to Shantung, though.
The story of Shantung is pure gold: Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai) arrives in Shanghai to find work, only to become entrenched in local gang conflicts due to his prodigious ability to beat the absolute shit out of anyone who crosses him. It’s a story of moral degradation and redemption, told through the eyes of a man who remembers what it means to be poor and on the streets and whose vision for a criminal empire basically extends only to fancy cigarette holders and justice for the downtrodden. Kuan-tai cemented himself as my favorite performer in the studio stable from that era. I frequently think about the film.
All of this to say that in 1997, Hong Kong filmmaker Corey Yuen (best known in the United States for his work with Jet Li on six of the star’s American films, including Kiss of the Dragon) was brought in to direct a remake of The Boxer from Shantung. By the late 1990s, Shaw Brothers had largely focused on television output for over a decade. Their previous role as a cinematic standard-bearer had considerably diminished. In just a few years, the studio would be sold. That was still the future, though, and the result of their attempted return to big-budget action blockbusters was Hero — a fairly fun but entirely inessential remake that probably plays better the less familiar you are with the original or its legacy.
In Hero, actor Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Ma Wing-jing, whose origins are initially similar to Ma Yongzhen: He’s a poor man trying to make his way in Shanghai, only to discover his unique skills make him a solid fit for the warring underworld. This remake is considerably shorter than the original and narratively abridged. It’s also filled with much more outrageous violence and stuntwork. The choreography and aesthetics are very much within its era of 1990s Hong Kong action and are easily the best part. Imagine Once Upon a Time in the West remade into a 90-minute gun-fu action extravaganza. That’s basically the result of Yuen’s adaptation.
The problem is that although Yuen masters ridiculous action, the rest of the movie short-changes the characters and the world around them. It also alters the relationships between Wing-jing and the underworld, making him outright heroic (hence the title). Plus, it bonds him to crime lord Tam Sei (Yuen Biao) for the perfunctory brotherhood action angle. It’s all fun enough for what it is, just not particularly memorable once the initial action excitement wears off.
88 Films has done a customarily great job with this release, though. The Blu-ray has a new HD transfer with 2.0 surround sound. A commentary track by Mark Leeder and Arne Venema is also included. The limited edition features new slipcover artwork by “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien and matches the other 88 Films boxes wonderfully. A double-sided fold-out poster is also included. The booklet, with an essay by Andrew Graves, is a fun read, and I was tickled to see he agrees with me about the film’s relative merits in relation to the original.