Two Hong Kong cops – veteran Huang (Jet Li) and his younger partner Wang (Zhang Wen) – try to solve a spate of murders which are tied to an aspiring starlet (Shishi Liu).

Buddy cops go broad, badly.

There’s not much of Jet Li in Jet Li’s latest action/comedy, Badges of Fury, a silly, slapstick farce overloaded with wirework stunts and achingly bad acting. Which may have been exactly how the ageing icon wanted it; the less time spent on screen in this ham-fisted B-trifle, the safer his reputation will stay.

a silly, slapstick farce

The great martial arts hero plays second fiddle to the perky, slightly irritating Zhang Wen in first-time director Wong Tsz-ming’s hyper reworking of the buddy-cop formula. It is by far the least worthwhile of Li and Wen’s three onscreen pairings to date; both Ocean Heaven (2010) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) were far more proficient, technically and dramatically.

The mismatched pair play detectives hunting a serial killer who leaves his victims with broad grins on their faces, the crimes soon dubbed 'The Smile Murders’. The film opens with a flurry of frantically-staged killings featuring real-life mainland celebrities (TV stars Cheng Kar-wing and Tse Tin-wah; Olympic diving great Tian Ling), the only link being that they all once romanced Liu Jingshui (Cecilia Liu Shishi), a fading starlet still yearning for acceptance as an actress.

Also on the scene is Liu’s buxom half-sister Dai Yiyi (Liu Yan), a predatory seductress who has stolen away with another of Jingshui’s exes, Gao Min (Raymond Lam), and who partakes in the hackneyed old black magic of voodoo doll pinning (seriously"¦). Bit players fall victim to the murderer regularly, allowing our heroes to examine crime scenes with little obvious regard for procedure and crack wise over grinning cadavers in the police morgue.

In the true spirit of the '80s Hong Kong action-comedy to which Badges of Fury so clearly alludes, nobody in front of or behind the camera seems particularly concerned with plausibility (unlike the films of Stephen Chow, who still stands as the genre’s best practitioner). It would be fascinating to calculate how much of the strained 97 minutes running time is writer Tan Cheung’s plotting and how much is veteran action director Corey Yuen’s cartoonish chop-socky stuntplay; not once do the two disparate elements exist harmoniously on-screen, the disjointed nature of the film further accentuated by shrill attempts at very broad comedy.

Produced with mainland Chinese funding, the film panders to both the broadest possible mass audience base and the strict censorship guidelines. The violence is so comically stylised, it comes as quite a shock when one character emerges from seven minutes of kicks to the face with a trickle of blood from his nose; Yiyi’s curvaceousness is leered over (DOP Kenny Tse’s camera frames her ample cleavage in mid-screen close-up over and over), yet somehow remains just chaste enough.

Most disappointingly, Jet Li, for so long an electrifying presence on screen, looks just a little bit tired of the whole process. The 50 year-old is clearly replaced by a much younger stuntman in an alleyway chase sequence, and his line readings are delivered in a disengaged monotone; he seems more than content to loiter at the edge of the frame, tolerating the grating presence of his fidgety co-star. The great Li, and followers of Asian action cinema, deserve a great deal better than anything on offer here.


1 hour 38 min