The Master (1992)

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After making the 1988 film Dragon Fight in America for director Billy Tang, Jet Li returns to America under the helm of director Tsui Hark, two years before the two collaborated on Li’s breakthrough hit film Once Upon a Time in China. This time, he gets help in the form of Yuen Wah, Crystal Kwok, and a cast of American martial arts champions.

Uncle Tak is the owner of the Po Chi Lam Institute in San Francisco’s Chinatown. One of his former students, Johnny, has abused his skills and has plans to take over the city with his martial arts schools. When Johnny confronts Uncle Tak, Tak is seriously injured and taken in by Anna, a gymnast whose attitude has her shunned by the outside world.

Uncle Tak’s student from China, Jet, has arrived to San Fransisco on a temporary visa. When he arrives at the airport, three thugs steal Jet’s suitcase but they become impressed when they see Jet keep up with them on foot, while they tried to drive off. They want Jet to take them on as students, but he refuses. When Jet finally learns of Uncle Tak’s location, he is met with coldness by his former teacher, who feels Jet somehow let him down by not showing up earlier. Jet does everything he can to convinve Tak to forgive him and eventually, their relationship is mended.

Things come to a blistering turnaround when Johnny has his students destroy the Po Chi Lam and Anna and the now reformed thugs are beaten, Jet decides to teach the thugs how to defend themselves. When Johnny and Jet face each other off, they are stopped by the police and Johnny runs off. The police have been wanting to nail Johnny for his crimes but have no proof. Meanwhile, Uncle Tak is challenged by Johnny to take on both him and his students on top of a commerical building, with a kidnapped Anna as the prize. When Jet learns where Tak is, Jet decides to go and help his teacher out and fight Johnny in one final match.

Jet Li, the amazing wushu champion turned martial arts action star, returns to America after shooting the film Dragon Fight, for this Tsui Hark action film. The Chinese title indicates this is a modern take on Wong Fei-Hung and there is the Po Chi Lam reference. However, this is a very nicely shot modern day action film that has plenty of martial arts action as well as some comic relief courtesy of Jet Li and Crystal Kwok, who plays a banker who closes down the Po Chi Lam, but only helps Jet out after her boyfriend has been seeing another woman. Of course, it is not long before Kwok’s character falls for the martial arts wunderkind.

Jerry Trimble, the tae kwon do expert who later became a kickboxing champion with the nickname “Golden Boy”, fits the mold for villain Johnny. Trimble sports a pretty bad mullet in the film, but he definitely has the kicking skills that made him a champion and thanks to the choreography by Yuen Wah (who plays Li and Trimble’s teacher in the film) and Brandy Yuen. This was also the first time that both Yuens (no relation) worked with American martial artists, from Steven Ho to Dale Jacoby, who play members of Johnny’s school. The choreographers also took full advantage of Li’s wushu, as Jet pulls off some amazing butterfly moves and kicks alongside his fast crispy hand techniques. In a memorable scene, Li even pulls off some nice swift sword techniques.

The film was shot in 1989, but was shelved until 1992. Rumors emerged that part of the reason was that Tsui Hark and Jet Li had a falling out after Once Upon a Time in China III and partly because of rumored on-screen tension between Jet Li and Jerry Trimble. According to an interview with Jerry Trimble, there was never any conflict between Li and himself. The language barrier between the two were the problem but they gave each other the respective nod on the set. The Tsui-Li falling out was true and lasted until Li returned as Wong Fei-Hung in 1996′s Once Upon a Time in China and America.

For an early Jet Li film, The Master is actually a fun film to watch. It does get pretty violent at times, but it is definitely a look at Jet Li in his prime.

WFG RATING: B

Golden Harvest Presentation of a Film Workshop production in ass. Director: Tsui Hark. Producer: Tsui Hark. Writers: Lam Kee-To and Lau Tai-Muk. Cinematography: Joe Chan and Paul Edwards. Editing: Kam Ma and Marco Mak.

Cast: Jet Li, Yuen Wah, Crystal Kwok, Jerry Trimble, Anne Ricketts, Ruben Gonzalez, Guy Fadallone, Derek Annunciation, Steven Ho, Dale Jacoby, Stefanos Miltsakakis, David Wald, Mark Williams, Billy Blanks, Glen Chin.

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