“Inspirational” or “feel good” stories of remarkable human ability--films like these are almost too numerous to even try to name a few. Lately, action-starved Hong Kong cinema has been clamoring for more martial arts action films. Well, Tsui Siu-Ming’s “CHAMPIONS” (2008) combines the elements of sportsmanship, friendship, love and dreams--this is a somewhat fictional account of the true story when Chinese Martial Artists wowed the world and created a kung fu frenzy throughout Europe, although kung fu wasn‘t a competitive event in the Olympics. It may follow the same formulas established by films such as “Remember the Titans”, but one thing is different from those films is the fact that Tsui’s film is incredibly action-packed--instead of relying on emotion and melodrama, it relies on numerous martial arts sequences and its old-school if over-the-top feel makes it very fun to watch.
1936, China. Chinese athletes all over the country dreams of representing their country in the Berlin Olympic Games. However, the Chinese government will only commit half of $ 600,000 to sponsor the athletes to go abroad. It now falls on the athletes to raise the other half by themselves. A self-proclaimed descendant of the Tai Chi master, Cheung Fung (played by Dicky Cheung) possesses remarkable skill but was never inspired to put his skills to good use--until he met a young female sprinter named Ngan Ling (Priscilla Wong), who is in fact the person who holds the national record in sprinting. In order to win her heart, Fung must lead the way for the athletes to raise $ 300,000, join the Olympic team, and under the tutelage of Master Cheung Chi-Kong (Yu Rong-Guang), Fung must fight his way up and beat fighters from other martial arts schools. His quest for victory will eventually lead everyone to discover that there is more to life than kung fu.
The film is supposed to be inspirational and it does have the usual clichés, but the script does get its message across. However, the film is a little tactless and Tsui definitely didn’t even try to be subtle. The film’s screenplay lacks discipline, as its main plot seemed to be burdened by many other underlying set pieces, and other unnecessary subplots to set up the action sequences. The result is the characters don’t have time to breathe and whatever emotions they manage to achieve felt very trivial. All the film’s elements are “souped-up” and it felt as if it is trying too hard to cover too much ground. The film should have a nominally sound inspiring script, but much of it is almost ignored when you have a kidnapping, an enraged nephew, a rivalry between schools and slapstick comedy that just manages to get all the attention through its long-winded execution that feels very choppy.
The direction isn’t really great and is rather crude to exude eminence and too conservative to impress. The film is a little charming with its themes of inspiration and friendship, but it is too melodramatic to maintain momentum that emotions are too pretentious. I guess the film does have its old-school charm, but it definitely lacked discipline. Tsui may have been aiming to make the audience laugh, cry and cheer--what I say is why ask too much? Be simple and focused in the direction of the screenplay and even the simplest plot will feel very solid.
Now the action sequences may have its own share of over-the-top bombastic nature but it didn’t bother me too much. The fight sequences are very fun to watch, they may be a little exaggerated, and uses a lot of wire-fu but still maintains that old school wuxia feel with the movement of the arms. The blows do look like they’re connecting and the encounters between “Praying Mantis and Tiger paw and Eagle’s Claw” may prove very diverting. But however exciting and very numerous the fight scenes are, most of them felt quite unnecessary, and Tsui just puts them in even though it was inappropriate to the movie’s plot. I do like the displays of martial arts prowess by Masters On, Hon and Cheung--heck even Dicky Cheung had his moments; but it all also feels very superficial and quite forced.
Siu-Ming Tsui’s “Champions” would still prove entertaining to action junkies and those who enjoy totally bombastic execution would be right at home. The director/co-writer/ co-fight choreographer was aiming too high--he aims for action thrills, tragedy, comedy, national pride, and melodrama that his direction became too unfocused and unrefined. The plot felt a little too heavy-handed and pretentious. The film may have forgotten to be a little subtle, its execution never allowed its plot to settle down and for its characters to breathe. Oddly enough, it remains very watchable because of the martial arts action and its old-school charm that emulates nostalgia.
Recommended with caution, RENT IT first. [3 Stars]