God save us from ‘Rise of the Legend’

The martial arts genre is built on Wong Fei-hung’s life. Born in 1847, the Chinese folk hero ran a martial arts school and medical clinic in Guangzhou City in the day and moonlit as a bodyguard for local businesses at night. Over 100 Hong Kong action flicks are based on his exploits, from Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” to Jet Li’s “Once Upon a Time in China.” Knowing this, “Rise of the Legend” feels extraneous from the jump.

With a huge legacy behind it, the movie should have a reason to exist, but, like Seth MacFarlane’s “The Cleveland Show,” it never attempts to provide that reason. It looks real cool, with some snazzy sequences, and it seems content with just being that. “Rise of the Legend” is a slick, empty mess that avoids what it should embrace: action. Through the plodding middle portion, you’ll be praying for someone to hit somebody. Instead, you get a clumsy melodrama in a martial arts movie’s clothes.

The movie opens on a fight scene, flashes back a number of times, and then returns to that same fight scene frame-for-frame. Later on, two battle sequences cut away well before the action. In place of any excitement at all, Christine To’s incoherent script opts for cringe-worthy schmaltz. This is supposed to be an action movie, so where God is the action?

Even with two gangs, the Black Tiger and the Orphan Gang, fighting for control over Guangzhou’s pier, it’s nowhere to be found. Caught in the middle of this war is Wong Fei Hung (Eddie Peng, “Duckweed”). He returns to Guangzhou, his hometown, seeking his father’s murderer, Master Lui of the Black Tiger gang (Sammo Hung, “Call of Heroes”). It doesn’t take long for this simple premise to fall apart. Sloppy editing, flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and a baffling structure make it hard to pinpoint where “Rise of the Legend” goes wrong. Everything goes wrong, so was it really just one thing?

Eddie Peng has a startling physicality, but the hokey special effects undermine his presence. Watching him plow through crowds is entertaining, for sure. But one man trapped in a narrow alley fighting endless crowds of gangsters on both sides is boring after the third time. To give credit where credit’s due, though, the movie has some excellent sequences. The ending showdowns especially are a blast to watch. They’re just not enough of a blast to merit the hour and a half garbage preceding them.

“Rise of the Legend” is a sad entry in Wong Fei-hung’s cinematic legacy. It’s a shoddily constructed drag with some excellent action sequences, none of which redeem the minutes leading up to them. At points, it seems like the movie purposefully avoids action altogether. Lazy character-building takes the place of battle sequences, and the movie loses sight of its purpose: fights. Please, “Rise of the Legend,” don’t try to be more than you are. Ditch those clodhopping theatrics and linger on the fight scenes. They’re all you have to offer.