Debuting on streaming service iQIYI, Le Wei’s The Wild Blade of Strangers is another in a series of higher quality actioners that have appeared of late on the streamer. Set during the Ming Dynasty, the Prince of Qi (Zhu Shimao) has sought to claim the power of the throne by executing the Crown Prince. The only thing that stands in his way is a young child, who is the only living descendant of the Prince.

The child is ferried to safety by Nie Ling’er (Xia Meng), but she can only keep the child safe for so long, as she is no match for the Prince’s guards who are hunting her and the child. Luckily she crosses paths with charcoal Tian Anye (Max Zhang), who whilst reluctant, ends up protecting Nie and quickly dispatches her pursuers.

Tian’s backstory comes to light as the film progresses, showing that he is no simple charcoal seller. Realizing that the child must be protected, in a deadly fight against the Prince’s men, Tian has to take down multiple opponents to keep the child safe. He is assisted in his journey by Qin Gu (Jiang Luxia) who has her own motives for trying to keep the child safe, with it not being clear where her true allegiances lie.

With a career now in its third decade, Max Zhang (a.k.a. Zhang Jin) has racked up a fine catalogue of performances. Supporting turns in the likes of The Grandmaster (2013), SPL II (2015) and Ip Man 3 (2015) have been noteworthy, as well as showing up in the odd Hollywood film such as Escape Plan: The Extractors (2019). As memorable as these roles have been, they haven’t afforded him the same level of stardom as some of his contemporaries. Even quality lead roles in The Brink (2017) and Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (2018) should have garnered him more attention than they did.

His last starring vehicle Wolf Pack (2022) didn’t exactly use Zhang to its advantage, with the film seriously shortchanging him in terms of action. Being such a fan of Zhang, I was extremely disappointed that he wasn’t given more of an opportunity to show off his martial skills. Even the lackluster The Invincible Dragon (2019) allowed Zhang to show off his talents, with him being involved in several fight scenes throughout.

The lack of Wolf Pack’s fight action is what initially got me excited for Zhang’s most recent feature, The Wild Blade of Strangers. The fact that it was being released straight to streaming didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm, but upon watching the first trailer for the film my interest was piqued, with this looking to be a higher end production than what normally constitutes a streaming release.

Having watched the film in its entirety, I was very much correct in my assumption that this would be a higher end production than the norm, with director Li Wei making sure his budget is put to the best use. Good performances, beautiful cinematography, authentic sets and costumes accompanied with some well done action make The Wild Blade of Strangers stand out from the crowd of similar films currently on streaming platform iQIYI.

While it may not be the film to open Zhang up to a wider audience, it is a much better showcase for his talents than Wolf Pack. Whilst the majority of the action on display is of the swordplay variety, Zhang is at least front and center, with him featuring in most of the film’s major action scenes. He isn’t exactly stretching himself here, with his character being the typically stoic martial arts hero, reluctant to get involved but still ends up doing the right thing when necessary.

Whilst the role of Tian Anye may not stretch him as an actor, most martial arts fans will be more interested in his fight scenes, with which Zhang doesn’t disappoint. He uses an assortment of weapons throughout, taking on multiple opponents in a violent manner. An early fight where Zhang’s Tian Anye swiftly takes down a group of Royal Guards shows just how deadly he can be. The choreography isn’t the flowery, balletic wirework favored by many wuxia, instead opting for a more grounded (albeit heightened) style.

There are some more fantastical fight moves as the film progresses, as is to be expected in this type of film. As typical of the genre, there has to be some suspension of disbelief during the fight scenes. Especially when you have your hero taking on a small army by himself. Even so, the fights are at least plausible within the setting of the film.

Zhang’s Wolf Pack co-star Jiang Luxia once again makes an impression. Admittedly her character does come across as an arsehole, but there are reasons behind this. The ambiguity of her character made her more interesting than the only other female character of the film, Nie as played by Xia Meng.

Unlike Wolf Pack where Zhang was shortchanged in terms of action, it is Jiang this happens to this time round. While her character does get involved in the action, she never really gets a chance to show off her martial arts skills as she has done in the past. She does impress in the fight action she is afforded, but it’s just a shame there aren’t more of them.

Upon looking up director Li Wei, it would appear that this is his first film as director. If that is the case, he has done a commendable job considering this is his first film. Although not perfect, with the pace slightly lagging at point, this is still a handsome piece of filmmaking, especially considering the resources Li would have had at hand. Visually it is at least on par with any other Chinese produced cinema releases.

I also appreciated that Wei didn’t shy away from depicting on screen violence, with the various fight scenes having a fair amount of blood, with the only thing letting them down being some under-par CGI being used for the blood. I understand that it is easier to use, but it is still one of my pet peeves in action films. I still look back fondly at 70’s & 80’s martial arts films where they would just go squib happy. Sure it may have looked fake, but it’s a damn sight better than what is utilized now in modern cinema.

The Wild Blade of Strangers definitely comes recommended. It isn’t a classic by any means, but it’s still a good way to spend 100 minutes or so. Alongside An Eye for an Eye 2 (2024), it is one of the better swordplay actioners I have seen recently, and makes the relatively cheap subscription for iQIYI worthwhile. Obviously, certain areas may not have access to the streaming platform, but I can’t see it being long before The Wild Blade of Strangers is picked up by a Western distributor. I’m looking at you Well Go USA.

As stated, this isn’t the film to catapult Max Zhang to stardom, but I’m sure if he keeps making films of this quality he will continue to build on his already substantial number of fans. I understand that he was injured last year, presumably on the set of this very movie. By the looks of it he has recovered, so hopefully it won’t be long until he is once again back on screen.

Plot: 3.5/5
Acting: 3.5/5
Action: 3.5/5
Overall: 3.5/5


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