Master, The | aka Wong Fei Hong ’92 (1989) Review

"The Master" DVD Cover

"The Master" DVD Cover

AKA: Wong Fei Hong ’92
Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Jason Lam, Lau Daai Muk
Cast: Jet Li, Yuen Wah, Jerry Trimble, Crystal Kwok, Billy Blanks, Anne Rickets, To Wai Wo, Lam Ping Hong, Rueben Gonzales, Georges Kee Cheung, Stefanos Miltsakakis, Steven Ho, Mark Williams, Dale Jacoby
Running Time: 88 min.

By Numskull

Ladies and gentlemen, a new standard in lameness has been set.

The Master may just be the worst Jet Li movie I’ve seen to date, surpassing even the feeble Dr. Wai & The Scripture With No Words and the unbearably cheesy New Legend Of Shaolin (or “Legend of the Red Dragon”, as Columbia/TriStar insists on calling it) in terms of overall crappiness. There’s so much wrong with this movie, I don’t know where to begin. Hmmm…how about the beginning? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

There’s this girl who works as a janitor in a gymnastics studio. Apparently she doesn’t like the other girls because she starts fights for no evident reason and then gets fired. Shed no tears for her, my friends; it serves her right for being such a bitch.

Yuen Wah (appearing, for the first time I can recall, in a non-villainous role) lives in San Francisco, runs a Chinese medicinal-type place, and knows about four words of English (he can say “hello” to answer the phone, but that’s where his expertise reaches its limit). Enter Master Johnny, an astoundingly non-threatening villain who got so pissed off when Yuen wouldn’t be his martial arts instructor a year ago that he went off and learned how to fight elsewhere, and now he’s back for (*gasp!*) REVENGE! He starts tearing up the joint and Yuen Wah, like any self-respecting shopkeep, feels obliged to put a stop to it. Waiting outside are two of Johnny’s students/cronies. They know their boss is a badass…such a badass, in fact, that they don’t dare to point out the slight matter of them having to bail him out when Yuen starts kicking the shit out of him. The now-unemployed janitor girl comes along on her scooter and rescues Yuen Wah, bringing him back to her trailer, where she nurses him… back to health, I mean.

Next, Jet Li arrives in America to visit his master (three guesses who that is) and takes a bus to San Francisco. He speaks no English and, upon disembarking, is immediately robbed by a Latino street gang. Here we have a trio of young miscreants who cruise around town in their roofless, graffiti-covered car looking for trouble and singing: “We’re the Latinos and we’d like to say, we’re the meanest gang there IS today!” If that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of the populace and send them fleeing in terror, nothing will.

Now you begin to see how pitiful this movie is. The Latinos (great name, by the way) are such weenies that you get the impression that their idea of raising hell and general gang-like behavior consists of swiping newspapers from the doorsteps of befuddled old ladies and spitting on spectators from the highest point of the Kiddie Koaster at the local amusement park. They make even the wussiest member of the street gang in Rumble in the Bronx look like Satan himself, for fuck’s sake.

Jet Li chases these hooligans and gets his stuff back (needless to say) by force. They then grovel at his feet, saying: “You’re the baddest dude I’ve ever seen! Teach us your martial arts!” Jet doesn’t strike me as a “bad dude” with his nice white teeth and bright blue ball cap, but who am I to argue with The Latinos? After all, they know one whole word of Chinese: “Sifu” (“Master”). When Jet hears them calling him this, he tells them to take a hike because he’s not teaching them shit. Of course, they don’t know what the hell he’s saying, so they follow him around like horny dogs in search of a leg to hump.

Jet is dismayed to see that Yuen Wah’s shop has been closed down and boarded up, but at least he gets to meet Crystal Kwok, the one significant character who speaks both Chinese AND English. Thus, whenever she’s around, we don’t have to endure any language barrier situations that are supposed to be humorous but end up being about as funny as watching paint dry. Instead, we get to endure countless lines of dialogue being said twice as she translates for the benefit of the monolingual. It’s a wonderful world.

With The Latinos’ lips still planted firmly on his ass (they have nowhere else to go now that their hideout has been torched by a gang that…as difficult as this is to believe…is even more badassed than they are), Jet goes to the police station and meets trailer girl (formerly known as janitor girl). She takes him to her place and he and Yuen Wah have a heart-warming reunion where the sifu bitch-slaps the student and tells him he wants nothing to do with him.

Meanwhile, Master Johnny and his students dominate the local martial arts scene, beating people up just to prove that they can. In one scene, Johnny kicks in the windshield of a police car, and the cop behind the wheel faints or dies or something. The one in the passenger seat, despite having a perfectly good firearm at his side, does absolutely nothing about this. “Holy shit!” he thinks. “This guy is so strong, he can break glass. GLASS! It takes enough steroids to kill a herd of African elephants for me to work up the strength to rip a square of wet toilet paper in half, and this guy is breaking GLASS! I’d better not fuck with him. Maybe if I just sit here and quietly defecate in my nice new uniform, he won’t see my terrified face, hear my palpitating heart, or smell the five jelly donuts I had for supper pushing their way out of my intestinal tract. Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

Jet finds time to have a budding romance of sorts with Crystal and gets a driving lesson in her SUV (that’s right, a fucking SUV. And she seemed like such a respectable young lady…), and also teaches The Latinos some kung fu to get them to shut the fuck up and stop following him everywhere. Their new skills (that’s “skills”, not “skillz”) don’t stop them from getting demolished by Johnny’s henchmen when they kidnap trailer girl. “Sheet!”, they say. I took French in high school rather than Spanish, but I believe that means “shit”. If anyone can verify this, please let me know.

Yuen Wah goes to rescue trailer girl and finds himself confronting Johnny and his minions on a rooftop. Once again Johnny proves himself to be one of the baddest badasses ever to walk the Earth by attacking Yuen Wah after he’s thoroughly exhausted from fighting about 25 guys. Jet shows up to save the day and has a climactic showdown with Johnny. When they fall through a skylight (or something), they land on a conveniently placed blue mat and bounce half way back up. Since absolutely no attempt was made to conceal this…it’s even more obvious than the zipper in the monster costume in those old drive-in flicks…I can only assume that it’s an intentional part of the movie and that when it mysteriously vanishes from underneath them, it’s because something was removed from the final cut.

I imagine the missing action and dialogue from the shortened blue mat scene would go something like this:

JOHNNY: What have we here? It is firm and springy, like the breasts of a young woman, yet soft and inviting, like certain other parts of her anatomy. And upon my word, it is the color of pureed Smurfs!

JET: Johnny bounces high into the air.

JOHNNY: See how it propels me ever closer to the heavens high above! I’ve not felt so elated since that time I nasally inhaled a six-ounce tube of model airplane glue.

Jet also bounces high into the air.

JET: Ah, to be a carefree child again, delighting in the simplest of life’s pleasures! I propose we set aside our differences for the nonce, noble sir. Come, let us frolic.

JOHNNY: I can bounce higher than you can.

JET: Can not!

JOHNNY: Can so!

JET: Can not!!

JOHNNY: Can so!!

JET: CAN NOT!!!

JOHNNY: CAN SO!!!

JET: I’LL KICK YOUR ASS!!!!

JOHNNY: OH YEAH?!?

JET: YEAH!!!!!

(The film has a way of “forgetting” the language barrier thing when it suits its purpose to do so. I guess we’re not supposed to notice.)

You know what the most annoying thing is? The last fight here is actually pretty good. No wires or anything. The other fights aren’t bad either. We have choreographer Yuen Wah to thank for that. With other sloppy movies, I’ve let the stupidity slide and given them decent ratings, but The Master is just so lame, I can’t bring myself to even recommend just watching the good parts. Between the flat-as-a-board dialogue, laughable characters, and insufferable language barrier “jokes”, the whole thing just sucks the wax out of a dead man’s ears. This is one of those immeasurably rare movies where the Miramax treatment might actually be an improvement. You ponder that while I go out and stand up the garbage cans that just got tipped over; those badass Latinos are on the loose again.

Numskull’s Rating: 3/10

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