Director: Donnie Yen
Cast: Donnie Yen, Yuqi Chen, Cya Liu Ya-Se, Kara Hui, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung Siu-fai, Ray Lui, Tsui Siu-Ming, Yuen Cheung-Yan, Du Yu-Ming, Michelle Hu Ran
Duration: 130 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Among the many famous wuxia novels out there, it is the one by Jin Yong Demigods and demigods which takes the prize for the one that was most adapted for the screen. On the small screen alone there have been 6 adaptations in the last 40 years, and on the big screen it was the Shaw Brothers studio that took the plunge in 1977 with The Battle Magewho wisely chose to adapt only part of the vast tale. Demigods and demigods followed in 1982 as a quick-grossing hit on the popular TVB series of the same year, and in 1994 received the new wire-fu wave treatment with The Dragon Chronicles: Maidens of the Heavenly Mountain. Jackie Chan was also announced to be starring in an adaptation in the mid-90s, which sadly never got off the ground. Now in 2023, a 4th feature film production came in the form of Hell.
Also scoring the 4th time for Donnie Yen to take on both directorial and lead roles, it took a long time for Asia’s biggest action star to return to the director’s chair since his resurgence nearly 20 years ago with 2005 Sha Po Lang. While he took a co-director credit for 2004’s awful vehicle Twins (remember them?). Protected of the Black Rosewhen most people think of Yen’s directorial output, it will be his trilogy of starring turns made between 1997 and 1998, consisting of The legend of the wolf, Ballistic kissAND Shanghai business. As a director, Yen has proven to be a divisive talent, his penchant for brooding anti-heroes and over-developed action set pieces admired by some and ridiculed by others. Whichever way you fell, what can’t be denied is that Yen the director had a distinctive style, and even though it took 25 years, I was excited to see how that style had developed since the late 90s.
Outside of his double success of contemporary actors directed by Wilson Yip with the aforementioned Sha Po Lang AND Flash point (which followed in 2007), some of my favorite Yen roles over the past 2 decades have been his adventures in wuxia territory. 14 blades, Wu XiaoAND The Lost Llama they were all solid entries that updated the genre for the 2010s and, in the case of the last 2, gave Yen the opportunity to incorporate her wide-ranging choreography skills into a genre that usually favored the soft and flowing over the It is intricate and high impact.
That high-impact aesthetic carries over to Hell, and is matched only by the complexity of the story Yen attempts to tell. In all honesty, whenever a feature film production tries to adapt a significant portion of Jin Yong’s novel within a 2 hour time frame, things tend to get messy. Both from 1982 Demigods and demigods and 1994 The Dragon Chronicles: Maidens of the Heavenly Mountain they quickly become exercises in incomprehensibility, leaving anyone unfamiliar with the source material scratching their heads as to what’s going on and why. Hell runs to 130 minutes, however instead of using the runtime to give breathing space to a certain section of the novel (similar to The Battle Mage approach), Yen tries to cram in too much, causing both tonal and rhythmic problems at several points.
As with many wuxia, providing even a concise synopsis could take up the rest of the review, so I’ll boil it down to this: Yen was part of a clan whose parents were murdered when he was still a child, and he was raised to become the head of the sect of beggars thanks to its powerful kung-fu. When the Deputy Chief is found murdered in the present, Yen is framed and his origins are revealed to be that of a rival clan to those who raised him. Outcast as both traitor and outsider, he vows to uncover the truth behind, well, everything. Who killed his parents? Who killed the Deputy Chief and framed him? Why can’t all clans get along? All of these are standard questions when it comes to the wuxia genre, and to his credit, Yen has opted for an approach that feels like a 2023 version of the many new wave wuxia films Hong Kong launched in the early to mid 2020s. 90’s.
For Hell Yen is at a point in his career where he has his own action team who, just like Jackie Chan in the 80s and 90s, perfectly understand his style of choreography and how to satisfy it on screen. So while Yen himself isn’t busy choreographing his latest production, should the action go to someone else, you couldn’t ask for better than Kenji Tanigaki (Enter the fat dragon, Blazing fire) and Yan Hua (Special identity card, 3D Iceman). With the able support of the Donnie Yen Action Team, together the action in Hell is arguably its greatest selling point, seamlessly blending Yen’s dynamic power, wire-fu, and CGI in such a way that it feels both fresh and familiar at the same time. Despite being on the verge of 60 Yen, he’s a commanding presence, and I defy anyone not to smile when, during an epic duel against a whole hall of assailants out for blood, he openly challenges them to ‘Come to me all together. ”
I considered the fight between Yen and Wu Yue Ip Man 4: The Finale being one of the best in the series, so seeing Yue come back here as the villain, delivering a final fight against Yen, was a wish come true. Tanigaki’s Influential Fencing Choreography from Rurouni Kenshin series emerges in this scene (namely running along the floor almost horizontally), and the fact that it offers styles such as the submissive eighteen dragons palm clashing with the technique of moving stars makes it an explosively fun face-off. Yen had said during the production of Hell which was approaching it as the wuxia equivalent of a Marvel movie, which I must admit sent shivers down my spine considering The four the trilogy sold itself on the same premise, but thankfully the approach isn’t a detriment. There may be some who don’t like Yen’s frequent energy shots, but they fit the tone of the story being told.
Outside of the action things are less so, with all the dramatic moments relying more on the often soaring soundtrack than any emotion or dialogue from the cast, with Yen’s love interest Yuqi Chen in particular failing to convince. Other times the narrative structure works against itself, such as Yen’s constant showing up as the first one at the scene of one more murder after another, making him a suspect in multiple murders, an editing choice that unintentionally ends up feeling more comic. than anything else.
What should be a buildup of tension in an epic midpoint fight scene is also wasted by Yen’s odd pacing decisions. Calling on anyone who wants to kill him to share a small glass of wine together, the scene spends an inordinate amount of time watching Yen converse one-on-one with each character who steps forward, robbing him of any sense of anticipation. The only silver lining is that the fight scene that eventually erupts thankfully lasts longer than the inane dialogue that precedes it. That, and it also features a fun cameo for the legendary Tsui Siu-Ming (Mirage, Bury me high).
In fact for the kung-fu movie fan Yen has filled the cast with talent, from Yuen Cheung-Yan (A heroic battle, Taoism Drunkard), to Kara Hui (My young aunt, Rose), to Du Yu-Ming (Massacre in Xian, Ninja in Ancient China). The nostalgia of seeing such Jade Screen legends share it again in 2023 may be enough to outweigh the negatives, though Yen’s reasons for casting them may be dubious. At one point a character refers to the 30-year period since Yen was rescued as a child, indicating that his character should be in his early 30s, which, frankly, is as believable as me mastering the Palm of the eighteen subdued dragons. Fortunately, the action is convincing in spades, showing yet again why Yen is considered a master of his craft. Hell it’s ultimately too flawed for everyone to enjoy, but if you loved the new-wave wuxia era of the 90s, then chances are you’ll find plenty to enjoy here.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 6/10