Review by Daniel Lima
It's the basis for dozens of martial arts movies: a young adult finds themselves under the tutelage of an eccentric old master, learning an unconventional fighting style in an unorthodox way, ultimately rising up to meet whatever challenge stands before them. The Smoke Master is the latest film in that tradition, a Brazilian indie where the strait-laced hero must learn cannabis kung fu to beat a generational vendetta. It sounds like the basis for a fun action comedy. Instead, it's the foundation of a grueling experience devoid of laughs and thrills.
Daniel Rocha and Thiago Stechinni play a pair of brothers who, unbeknownst to them, have been subjected to the Three Generations Curse, a multi-generational Triad revenge plot that has already killed their father and grandfather. After older brother Stechinni is hospitalized by the local Triad boss, Rocha heads off to the mountains to take his place as the student of the legendary Smoke Master, harnessing the martial power of ganja in hopes of beating his family's curse.
One might assume that the bulk of the film is training under the titular teacher, which is typical of this niche genre. Surprisingly, that doesn't start in earnest until the film is more than halfway over. Before that, we spend a ton of time with the various figures in the brothers' urban life. They live with their adopted father, a martial arts master himself. They hang out with their friends, all students of their father. The older brother has a wife and kid; he hangs out with them. The villains are shown arguing with each other and sitting around menacingly in sparsely decorated rooms.
Through all this, there's no attempt to flesh out these various characters, with most of them not even receiving names. There's no dialogue that isn't exposition or random chatter in group scenes, so no personality comes through any of the conversations for the characters or the film. The scenes themselves are shoddily edited, arbitrarily splicing scenes within each other, muddling any sense of time or space to the point that it's hard to make sense of an incredibly flimsy presence. The sole saving grace is Tristan Aronovich as the over-the-top Triad crime boss, clearly relishing his role as a brutish villain.
Things are a little better when the actual Smoke Master arrives. As charming as Tony Lee is in that role, he cannot make up for the bland charisma void that is Daniel Rocha. This formula requires a lead that is actually fun to be around, and the lack of character definition combined with Rocha's inability to project any emotion makes the training sequences, as ludicrous as they get, every bit the endurance test that the first half of the film is. You're more resilient than me if you don't hate seeing Rocha's face by the film's end.
One thing this movie does have is plenty of martial arts action. Unfortunately, it's pretty bad. Some of the actors seem to be more physically capable than others, but none seem comfortable fighting for the screen. Their movements lack power and sharpness, the camerawork lacks clarity, and the same editing deficiencies in the narrative create continuity errors in the fights. There's an overall lack of kineticism and danger in the action, to the point that it never even feels like someone is in danger of being hit.
One might argue this is obviously a very low-budget film, featuring actors who may not have the necessary skills without stunt doubles, and no one wants to risk getting hurt making something that looks good. To that, I would ask: why make a martial arts movie at all? The entire appeal of these films rests on capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of bodies in motion. For that, you need performers who, even if they're not as gifted as the likes of Jackie Chan, are willing to push their physical capabilities to the limit and accept the potential that they may suffer for it. I would then point that hypothetical person to the 2006 indie actioner Contour, and if that doesn't settle the matter, nothing will.
Ultimately, The Smoke Master feels like a project that may have been doomed from the start. Novice filmmakers without a firm grasp of the crafts of writing and directing are trying to tackle martial arts comedy with a cast that cannot handle action choreography. It was a recipe for disaster, and the result is an aggressively, painfully aggravating experience that will have any martial arts fan daydreaming about Drunken Master, Of Cooks and Kung Fu, The Mystery of Chess Boxing, or any number of successful riffs on a formula that might otherwise be called foolproof.
The Smoke Master is available on home video and digital January 2.