Rising martial arts star Philip Ng (Young and Dangerous: Reloaded) stars as Ma Yongzhen, a character from both the 1927 film Boxer from Shandong and The Shaw Brothers 1972 version. Ma comes to Shanghai in the early 1930sto rejoin young Little Flora with her father.
|Long Qi (Andy On) and Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng)
But the Shanghai that he encounters is not one of prosperity and opportunity, but a city in which only the strong survive and becoming a gangster is the easy way out taken by many. It is probably because of the gloomy situation in which Ma and those who befriend him dwell that the film is essentially shoot in a blue/grey motif. The little color to be found is in the bracelet Ma wears on his right wrist, a gift from his mother to remind him to think before hitting another because his punch is so incredibly powerful.
|Master Tie (Sammo Hung)
Ma's desire to make an honest living is challenged by the four bosses in the Axe Fraternity who run the Shanghai Bund. They, in turn, are challenged by Long Qi (Andy On), who has risen through the ranks and has taken control of half the territory formerly run by the four bosses. The situation is made even more complex by the local Japanese Chamber of Commerce, led by Hashimoto Hiroichi. Their "Japanese tea" is actually smuggled opium, and they seek to control all of Shanghai.
|Ma (right) delivering one of the many kicks in the film
Fortunately, Ma has friends and allies. Chief among these is Master Tie, played by Sammo Hung in a small but important supporting role. Tie along with his two daughters runs a soup kitchen of sorts for the laborers in the Shanghai Bund. Tie Mei (Michelle Hu), the youngest daughter, comes to become rather attracted to Ma and his wholesome and forthright ways. An unexpected friendship that approaches brotherhood also develops between Ma and Long.
The main problem as I see it is the story, which Director Wong also wrote. Certain characters and themes pop up and then simply disappear, The male friend who accompanies Ma to Shanghai, and Niu Sanguang who greets them and shows them around the city, for example. But then again, the main attraction of this kind of film is not its narrative structure or integrity, but how good the action scenes are.
|Philip Ng as Ma Yongzhen, but kinda lookin' like Bruce Lee
And there are quite a few action scenes, some which involve multitudes of axe-wielding baddies coming at Ma. Wire work is evident fairly often, as characters go flying from powerful kicks or go sliding huge distances across the floor. Yuen Wo Ping's fight choreography is more than serviceable, and actually quite exciting at times. Overall, I'd have to say, though, that it's not one of his best efforts.
|Tie Mei (Michelle Hu) and Ma Yongzhen
Finally it'd be hard not to notice the obvious attempts to make Philip Ng come across like a present-day incarnation of Bruce Lee. He's got some pretty good moves, but he doesn't exhibit anything approaching Bruce's charisma, at least not bere.
-- Mandarin 5.1 DTS HDMA or 2.0 Stereo
-- English 5.1 DTS HDMA or 2.0 Stereo
- Subtitles: English / Off
-- A "Making Of" featurette (4:39 long) that consists of shots made during filming, including wire work and injuries, as well as scenes from the film itself. Very, very little dialogue or commentary.
-- Once Upon A Time In Shanghai trailer
-- Previews of some other Well Go USA offerings.
All-in-all, Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is a decent enough action film, though definitely not great and perhaps a bit shy of being really good. Depends on how much the weaknesses of the story bother you and whether of not the fight choreography appeals to you.
For this reviewer, Once Upon A Time In Shanghai gets a 2.5 out of 4 star rating, putting it better than just fair, but not quite solid enough to be considered good.