Lionsgate must truly believe that American audiences will blindly adore any foreign martial arts release, just so long as the fight action never ceases until the credits roll. Kung-Fu Master tests that theory by splicing together fight scenes from a Chinese martial arts television series, sprinkling in a few minutes of plot, and slapping a generic title in epic-looking font on the front of the DVD case.
Tan Zong, played by veteran martial arts actor Yuen Baio, is but a humble, kung-fu master, Shaolin monk. His skills have unfortunately attracted the attention of the Grand Commandant who wants Tan Zong to train his army. As a monk, he must detach himself from worldly affairs and decline the offer. As the monk makes his way to speak with the Grand Commandant, he is forced into a fight at every turn.
Through most of the film it seems as though every gang of weirdos within travelling distance wants to pick a fight with the peaceful monk for no apparent reason. Poor Tan Zong can barely take two steps without getting attacked with a coffin, musical instruments, umbrellas, spears, benches, and swords, among other weapons
The early fight scenes are difficult to follow at times because of the frequent camera close-ups of the action. Most of the fight scenes feature creative use of weaponry and, if nothing else, make for amusing fights. It's an odd pleasure to witness a Shaolin monk battle a coffin. Oh, and don't try to stab the monk. While blunt objects exhibit at least some minor effectiveness, sharp and pointy metal weapons bend like a flimsy piece of rubber when they strike Tan Zong's impervious skin. Some of the fighting scenes are well choreographed, but just as many leave you scratching your head and questioning what just happened. At some point in all the madness you have to wonder why anyone ever bothers to attack Tan Zong with stabbing weapons.
The excellent finale features Tan Zong and his crew of twelve monks facing off against an entire army and almost makes this movie worth checking out. However, there are major issues with the movie itself that will turn off all but the most hardcore fans of the genre.
Kung-Fu Master has a barely existent storyline. Admittedly, martial arts flicks are hardly known for their Oscar-worthy, masterpiece plots. However, there should be at least the illusion of reason for the nonstop fight sequences. I never bought into the minimalist plot of some warlord wanting Tan Zong to either be his drillmaster or be killed. At the end of the movie, Tan Zong is joined by his merry band of monks--an interesting group, most of whom were conspicuously absent until the final fight. There is a painfully obvious amount of missing characterization and plot development. The story leaves too many questions unanswered and assumes viewers are thrilled simply to watch pure, uninterrupted wire-fu for 95 straight minutes.
Lionsgate fails to mention that this "movie" is merely a clips show of the television series, Legend of Shaolin Kungfu II, the middle part of a 120-episode television series. That explains the gaping plot holes at least. What might be an interesting story was hacked and trashed into what American audiences really want: an orgasm of random martial arts violence. Who cares why! That monk dude just beat up a gang of ninjas that attacked him with umbrellas!
Audio: The DVD includes English and Mandarin 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. I listened to the Mandarin 5.1 track for this review. The surrounds were barely used, but the sound quality is decent for what I later discovered was originally a television series. When the actors actually act they play their parts a bit too cartoony at times compared to the expectations set by the DVD packaging, which seems to promise a serious, historical, martial arts epic. "Hero. Warrior. Savior."
Video: The video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The video quality exhibits noticeable graininess and pixelization throughout, which is especially visible in darker scenes. The video often looks cheap with the awkward camera panning--it's like watching a soap opera on television that just happens to feature kung-fu fighting. Overall, the video quality is shoddy at best.
Extras: There are some trailers included.
Final Thoughts: There's nothing that stands out in this abridged, 95 minute, best-fights version of a 40-episode television series. I didn't find out the movie was a cut-up version of a series until after I initially watched it, which made me go from mere dislike to pure hatred for this DVD. Kung-Fu Master's story is nonexistent, the characters are undeveloped, and the fights are lackluster until the phenomenal final battle. Perhaps the fully fleshed out television series is much better than this hodge-podge of kung-fu fighting. Until it's released in-full, we'll never know. Martial arts film buffs might find some value here, but there are probably hundreds of better kung-fu films than this one that are actually movies. Skip it.