Directed by: Xu Haofeng & Xu Junfeng
Distributed by: TBD
Written by Christopher Cross
Influenced by the martial arts classics that came before it, Xu Haofeng and Xu Junfeng’s latest film, “100 Yards,” delivers some of the most engrossing and grounded fight sequences in recent memory. Providing each fighter with trademarks and character within their unique fighting styles, each scene walks a tightrope between tempered and concise kung fu sequences and sequences that verge on musical territory in how orchestrated and rhythmic they are. While it may not have the emotions running through its narrative to keep it compelling enough to make its familiar plot noteworthy, it has its heart on its sleeve – acting better as a celebration of martial arts cinema.
It’s the stylistic flourishes that provide a neat accent to every near-fatal blow as Shen (Jacky Heung) goes against his father’s dying wishes and seeks ownership of the academy his father has overseen in Tianjin, China. Within a close-knit martial arts circle is Qi (Andy On) who is Shen’s father’s apprentice and the one set to inherit the academy. However, his intentions with the academy are murky, at best, and now must settle his dispute with the circle in a fight against his mentor’s son. Each interaction between Qi and Shen carries with it a cold hostility as the two represent opposing views that could have significant consequences on the customs they’ve upheld for their entire lives.
Its simple plot leads to a higher emphasis on the presentation and action itself, both of which dazzle as a result. Each fight scene moves to a rhythm, punctuated by quick, decisive blows to an opponent and a score from An Wei that befits the dragging of feet within a turf war and the intense showdowns between two rivals. It can match the chaos or bring a chaos of its own and that helps maintain that constant state of unease on who actually has the upper hand throughout the film.
Each fight is also set against the backdrop of gorgeous 1920s-era landscapes, as the town of Tianjin comes alive during each fight. Streets move from barren to bustling within moments as the town opens up and gets in the middle of street gangs attempting to seize power – and the Qi and Shen rivalry goes from behind closed doors out into the crowded streets. It’s almost dizzying and the pace that each fight moves is deliberate and fast. Heung and On are both bonafide stars in the way they carry themselves throughout those fights, oozing charisma after every punch and matching cool confidence with stoic skill. The presentation is so meticulously detailed that it almost makes up for the boilerplate story it’s serving.
Unfortunately, “100 Yards” does feel somewhat stuck emotionally and presents its romantic ideas as if they’ve been engaging and developed in any meaningful way. By its conclusion, it struggles to retain the same interest each of its fights presents for its overall story and the world-building it does within its martial arts circle feels superfluous to the intensity of Qi and Shen’s rivalry. They consume everything around them and any moment spent fleshing out either character seems done out of necessity as opposed to desire. They are characters that fill archetypes and the extra work put in to make them seem like more than that is somehow hollow feeling.
Still, there’s something to be said about making a straight martial arts film that feels indebted to its predecessors while still coming out with its own captivating style. Its visual language takes precedent over every other element of the film, and because of that, it’s a consistently pleasing film to watch. Its strengths do a lot of the heavylifting to take an otherwise rote power struggle and make it feel cinematic without the emotional heartbeat to back it up. A fantastic showcase for martial arts and action fans, that fumbles its approach to storytelling.
“100 Yards” Trailer
Christopher Cross is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University. You can find more of his writing on his website and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Substack, or Letterboxd for more of his thoughts.