When it comes to crafting compelling stories, anything can inspire ideas: love won or lost, a desire to return to childhood innocence, moments of great historical significance. All of these and more provide the baseline for audiences to engage emotionally with a story before the screenwriters, actors, and directors get down to business. In the case of Well Go USA’s latest home release, The Unity of Heroes, the foundation is inspired by Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Among the many aspects of his being from which he’s known, Hung’s expertise in the Hung Ga style of Chinese martial arts has served as the entry point for many films over the years, including the Once Upon a Time in China series which starred renowned actor and martial artist Jet Li. Since taking over for Li in the fourth entry of the Once Upon series in 1994, Vincent Zhao has appeared as Master Wong in both film and television. In this debut feature from director Lin Zhenzhao, the legendary hero may require more than his collective training to defeat a foreign adversary.
In the town of Guangdong, there is one person whom everyone knows will offer assistance: Master Wong Fei Hung (Vincent Zhao). Teacher of the martial arts, instructor for the local militia, healer for the sick or infirm, Master Wong wears many hats and with incredible humility. As a new drug begins to sweep through town, it will require all of Master Wong’s insightfulness and cleverness to find the means to prevent the poison from spreading. However, with a sinister group on one side of him and a rival fight club lead by Master Wu (Michael Tong) on the other, it may be more than Master Wong can handle on his own.
On paper, The Unity of Heroes is a swashbuckling adventure placing traditionalism against expansionism where distrust against a foreigner isn’t jingoism rearing its head, but the rational response to a disrespect of community and country. Even though it sounds like a lot, Unity bears it through a script which takes its time setting up Guangdong, Master Wong, and the various elements which will inevitably come to collide. However, the film can’t decide what type of tone it wants to set. In the opening sequence, Master Wong and his disciplines train against a cloudy sky, executing various forms before Zhao as Wong takes over. In a flurry of movements, Wong appears as a force to be reckoned with before the title slams onto the screen. At this moment, the audience is teed up for a return to martial arts glory as a group of fighters will band together against a common enemy to defeat tyranny and save the people. Except that only sort of happens. There is no unity. There is no band of heroes. There is only Wong, his students, and his beloved Ms. Mo (Na Wei) facing off against a growing horde of poisoned fighters. There’s a middling love story, some horror elements, and quite a bit of comedy flowing in and out of the narrative which rarely take hold the way they are likely intended. That’s not to suggest that they are ineffective in their individual moments, but as a whole, Unity rarely feels as though it is in any way unified.
If you’re coming to a film like Unity, though, it’s likely you’re not as interested in the content as the fighting. Unfortunately, while there are some clever wire-fighting moments, the fast-cut editing employed to instill a sense of speed and devastation from blows detracts from the actual fighting. Perhaps because of the exquisite stunts in Well Go USA releases Furie, Shadow, and even Big Brother, much of the stuntwork here falls flat by comparison, as though the film is presenting a version of full contact martial arts without the presentation of danger. Without the energy, the ferocity, or perception of high-powered action, it’s hard to tell what Unity is trying to achieve through its stunts other than checking a box necessary for the genre.
Fans of wuxia or folk hero Wong Fei Hung are left hanging in the special features department. During the credits, audiences are treated to additional scenes and behind the scenes footage. With the exception of previews for three Well Go USA releases (Triple Threat, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, and Shadow), and a trailer for The Unity of Heroes, there are no bonus features included in the home release. Especially for audiences who delight in martial arts, the lack of additional material makes the home release practically barren.
The Unity of Heroes may inspire nostalgia in martial arts fans longing for simpler, classic tales of adventure, but it’s doubtful this one will satisfy the itch. Even though Zhao maintains a commanding presence as Master Wong and the majority of the cast are incredibly engaging in their individual roles, there’s little keeping the audience tethered to the film. Culture pride and a nostalgic view of traditionalism only get an audience so far, therefore, tonal consistency and propulsive action become more critical to keeping the audience locked in. Thankfully, for audiences looking for something more terrifying with their classic tales, Rampant remains available and Shadow remains in select theaters.
Available on Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD, and digital beginning May 28th, 2019.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.