Rise of the Legend wastes precious little time getting to the point, burdening its protagonist with but a few perfunctory sentences before dropping him into a rain-drenched battle in which he's hopelessly outnumbered. That water runs red by the end of the skirmish, with much of the blood coming from our hero. Too artfully made for camp status but populated by characters too one-dimensional to stand alongside the likes of Once Upon a Time in China, Chow Hin Yeung's martial-arts epic set in the late 19th century is marked by blue-grey hues and some genuinely striking camerawork — a tracking shot of goods being brought into a warehouse is no less impressive than the many fight sequences, all of them both graceful and thudding.
The narrative is one of warring factions, with bad guys boasting cool-sounding names (Third Tiger) and gnarly implements of violence, especially a hot poker made all the cooler by the fact that it ends up being used to slit a dude's throat rather than just burn him. The throat-cutter issues an open challenge for one of his underlings to bring him the head of a rival gang's leader, with the promise that whoever does so will be adopted by him and gain the prestigious title of Fourth Tiger. The blood-feud action set off by this edict is awesome, even if the plotting is more difficult to follow than the fighting -- Rise of the Legend's jumble of backstories, flashbacks and betrayals can't hope to carry the same weight as its punches.