Director: Fong Cheung
Starring: Jimmy Lee, Norman Chu
The genesis of this martial arts epic is an intriguing one. It was originally conceived in the early 70s as a project for Bruce Lee. It was to be his first in an early period setting. When Bruce passed in 1973 it (and several other would be projects) was shelved. But the story (based on true characters and events) was a strong one and in 1979, Lo Wei (who was to have been it's director) dusted the script off and decided it was time to film it. Of course by this time, the period martial arts craze was in full swing and had been for some time. The plot was hardly as original at that point as it would have been some six or seven years earlier. Still it was a solid, character driven script. Better late than never...
For the revised project Lo Wei went with the producer tag, but did not direct (a good thing as Lo was always something of a hack director who benefited greatly from the star power that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan lent). Instead he turned over the directing chores to Fong Cheung. Cheung has apparently only directed a handful of films himself so the choice seemed like a dubious one. However, it turned out to be a solid move as Fong was able to keep the politically charged script from bogging the picture down.
Replacing Bruce in the lead was Jimmy Lee (aka Lung Fong). Jimmy has had a long career spanning from the 1970s through the 90s in all kinds of films from old school kung fu to modern day action. This is one of his few lead perfs and he delivers. He's not Bruce, not even close (then again, who is?) but he was solid and diplayed a higher level of martial arts skills than previously shown.
In it Lee plays Nie Kan Yao, a Ming patriot who with the help of other patriots/rebels attempts to bring down the Ching dynasty. His way of accomplishing this is to befriend the dying King's fourth son (played by Norman Chu) who is scheming to discredit the thirteenth son, the one whom the King favors to be his successor. Managing to gain the fourth son's trust, Nie assists him in his royal plot while also gaining power and evidence for a rebel uprising.
This is a powerful and dramatically charged film, much more so than most made at the time. The fight choreography (courtesy of Alan Chiu) is outstanding and scenes showing the inner workings of the Ching are consistently intriguing. Some viewers were put off by the lack of a happy ending, but again this was based on true events and these things rarely provided a positive outcome.
But as strong as this movie is, I did have one major problem with it (and I mean aside from music swiped from Disney's The Black Hole used during tense moments). After all of the careful planning and various plot setups, the finale seems to come straight out of nowhere. It's as if the filmmakers just lost patience with the whole thing (I can just imagine Lo Wei "overseeing" it all by yelling, "too much story, fight! fight!!"). It feels like there's a reel (or possibly two) missing just before the final battle. It's an 86 minute film that feels as if it were edited from a 106 minute cut. This is really a shame as it reduces the film from being one of the finest kung fu movies ever to... merely great.
That said, when the finale does happen, whoa mama! It is twenty minutes of supreme martial arts mayhem like few others. Having sat through thousands of kung fu movies over the past two and a half decades, this battle is easily in the Top 20, maybe even in the Top 10. It is an incredible thing to behold, highlighted by a performance for the ages by Kwan Yung Moon. Dubbed "The Mad Korean", Kwan truly lives up to his billing as he goes positively ape shit, kicking everybody and everything in sight (including his own men!) with a ferocity I had not seen since, well since Bruce himself.
The Rebellious Reign despite it's flaws, is a film that any self respecting kung fu film fan needs to see. It may not be what it could have been had Bruce Lee been involved, but what we are left with is still plenty impressive..
***1/2 / ****