There’s nothing quite like watching a movie like Legend of the Wolf (or any of Donnie Yen’s recent directorial endeavors). It’s so self-assured, so blatant, and so… bad. And yet you have to admire how seriously, how melodramatically Yen takes everything — his acting, the scenes, the storyline. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.
Yen plays the titular Wolf, a retired assassin of renown. He’s tortured by the ghosts of his past and prone to remembering the happier times, if only to punish himself even more for his past transgressions. When he’s tracked down by Ben, a young upstart assassin who hopes to take the Wolf’s place as the number one killer, the pro decides to dissuade him. And so begin the flashbacks.
In fact, the whole movie seems like it’s nothing but one flashback after another, which makes for some very confused viewing. The Wolf was once Man-Hin, a villager drafted into the army and turned into a brutal killer. After the war, he becomes a bandit, only to realize the error of his ways. He takes out the gang, but loses his memory as a result. He becomes an aimless drifter, knowing only that he must return to Wai-Yee, the girl he left so many years ago.
From there, the predictability just abounds. What do you want to bet that he just happens to come across a village that just happens to be located next to the temple where he and Wai-Yee pledged their love so long ago? What do you want to bet that his old bandit buddies come looking for revenge? And what do you want to bet that the film will have a tragic ending?
From the minute he and Wai-Yee find each other again, you can basically figure out each turn of the story. What makes it all “better” is how Yen just piles on the martial arts action, making liberal use of his pride and joy, undercranking. His editing knows no bounds either, resulting in fights that seem to consist of jump cuts and transitions more than actual kicks and punches. Admittedly, some of it does look really cool — Man-Hin’s fight with the tiger-clawed bandit at the film’s end is pretty exciting to watch — it becomes fairly old hat after awhile.
But Yen also tries his hardest to make the film “artistic” and “deep,” throwing in ultra-dramatic moments meant to expose the longing and hurting in Man-Hin’s life (which, unlike those in Ballistic Kiss, rarely work). My favorite is a scene that takes place after Man-Hin’s reunion with Wai-Yee. One day, Wai-Yee awakes to find him missing, and desperately searches for him. She finally finds him sitting out in the middle of field, looking pensive as he gazes into the peaceful sky, finally feeling at home. He and Wai-Yee share a tender moment, but lest we forget how tough he is, his shirt is unbuttoned and flapping in the wind.
As for the film’s romantic element, it has everything going for it except passion, depth, and believability. The couple’s big romantic moment, which happens during a rainstorm (of course), is so awkwardly done, with the camera right up in their faces as they paw each other, that it looks like another one of the movie’s fight scenes. Yen almost seems afraid of letting the audience’s view stay in one spot for more than 10 seconds. As a result, even the lovers’ embrace is filled with tons of cuts, to the point where it looks like they’re trying to beat the crap out of each other… with their tongues.
Yen plays the tortured, existential killer to the hilt, doing everything he can to make sure we know how pained his character is. I can’t say if it’s a problem of ego or what, but Yen reaches way too far throughout this entire movie. Even his moments of subtlety announce themselves with dramatic music, meaningful glances that fill the screen (usually undercut with scenes of his past violence), and more slow motion than he knows what to do with.
It’s shame, because Yen is a talented guy. Anyone who has seen Iron Monkey, Once Upon A Time In China 2, or Wing Chun can see that. However, in those films, he’s an actor… and he rules the screen whenever he’s on there (just watch Iron Monkey if you need proof). As a director, however, he leaves a lot to be desired, which is pretty ironic considering how hard he tries and how much he jams into his films.