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The Underdog Knight
Underdog Knight     Underdog Knight

(left) Liu Ye, and (right) Ellen Chan and Anthony Wong in The Underdog Knight.
Chinese: 硬漢  
Year: 2008
Director: Ding Sheng  
Producer: Wong Jing
Writer: Ding Sheng, Liu Tao
Cast: Liu Ye, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, You Yong, Liu Yang, Ellen Chan Ar-Lun, Otto Wong Chi-On, Sun Hong-Lei, Yu Rong-Guang, Ma Jingwu, Jiang Yi, Zheng Hong-Tao
The Skinny: Liu Ye takes the law into his own hands in Underdog Knight, a Mainland co-production from producer Wong Jing and director Ding Sheng. As a thriller or a drama, the film never truly takes off, but the mixture proves oddly entertaining, in large part due to Liu Ye's intense performance.
by Kozo:

The oddly entertaining The Underdog Knight deserves special recognition for being one of the more bizarre co-productions in recent memory. Wong Jing produced this questionably commercial action drama that plays like a PRC-approved mash-up of Forrest Gump, Taxi Driver and about five other films. Liu Ye stars as Wang Tao (called Lao San, because he's the third son in his family), a discharged naval officer in the People's Liberation Army. When rescuing a drowning comrade, Wang Tao spends too much time underwater, and the lack of oxygen results in reduced mental function. Luckily, he has an incredibly patient girlfriend named Daffodil (Liu Yang of Bullet and Brain), and is helped through his daily existence by his mother's care, as well as a stalwart friendship with Smile (Zhang Hong-Tao), a young boy who likely qualifies as Wang Tao's intellectual equal.

Post-accident, Wang Tao becomes the village idiot, albeit one with martial arts training and a profound sense of justice. Wang Tao is now super righteous, and steadfastly believes that it is his duty to fight evil - a duty that he fulfills by taking on low-level gangsters, hit-and-run artists and even pickpockets in sudden street fisticuffs. Wang Tao also refuses to lie about anything, plus he's oddly addicted to drinking boiled water, which he stores in a camouflage-patterned canteen given to him by Daffodil. Finally, Wang Tao carries around a large spear that he sometimes uses in his vigilante justice. All Wang Tao needs is a Nomex survival suit and about a zillion dollars and he could give Bruce Wayne a run for his money.

However, what stops Wang Tao from being a regular Dark Knight is his simple nature and questionable mental faculties, as he can easily be manipulated to help bad people if they seem like good ones. That's what happens with Dragon (Anthony Wong), a Hong Kong gangster who's in China to steal the "Dragon Tongue", a priceless antique spear that used to belong to Song Dynasty general Yue Fei. Dragon and Wang Tao accidentally happen upon one another early in the film before crossing paths later, when haunted cop Captain Jiang (You Yong) is hot on Dragon's tail. A dust-up happens, Dragon and Wang Tao end up sharing a jail cell and before long, the stage is set for a three-way confrontation between cop, criminal, and dopey vigilante. Who's the winner?

Not the audience, because The Underdog Knight doesn't generate the tension that its multi-plot storyline requires. The story is relatively solid, but the character bits and running plotlines are so numerous and superficially explored that the whole doesn't add up to much. There's actually very little interaction between the film's main characters; while Wang Tao relates his daily life and stiff morals in stilted voiceover, Dragon is somewhere else working on the heist with his girlfriend Nancy (Ellen Chan), and Jiang is on an entirely different case moping over the death of a former partner. Everyone here has a story to tell, but few of them really resonate, as director Ding Sheng can't get his genre-character mishmash to work beyond only the basic level. His themes never play out as more than standard movie tropes; there are maybe one or two effective movies in Underdog Knight, but as is, none of them are more than generic.

What does work is the acting, which is far above standard for a Mainland commercial film. You Yong brings his usual grizzled presence, Anthony Wong does fine understated work as a bad guy who's really not that bad, and Liu Ye amps the intensity as the film's "underdog knight". Toned, tense and totally dense, Wang Yao is a risky character to play; though he's slow and stalwart like Forrest Gump, he's neither lovable nor wise, and Liu Ye never makes him a truly sympathetic protagonist. Liu portrays the character with abandon, acting up a storm without any hint of self-preservation. It's a brave performance, but since the film isn't that substantial, his professionalism seems a tad overdone. Basically, Liu Ye overacts, but in a good way.

The Underdog Knight still works as minor entertainment, though some of that entertainment is unintentionally derived from the odd nature of the production. In addition to Anthony Wong and Ellen Chan, the film also features overacting from Otto Wong of HK boy band EO2. Producer Wong Jing's "kitchen sink" filmmaking approach can be seen in the numerous clichés (e.g., the barely-developed romantic conflict, the honorable bad guy, the friendship with the young boy). Also, as a Mainland production, the film occasionally serves up crass bits of patriotism. Ultimately, the best thing about The Underdog Knight is probably Liu Ye's intense performance as Wang Tao. Liu's career has never really progressed since Liu's attention-getting turn in Lan Yu, with the actor getting stuck in bad guy roles (Connected, Blood Brothers) and decent supporting roles in high-profile missteps (The Promise, Ah Sou). The Underdog Knight isn't a step forward for Liu Ye, but it does demonstrate once again that he works really, really hard. Based on effort alone, he deserves better roles. (Kozo 2009)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Vicol Entertainment Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

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