Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a remake of Boxer from Shantung (1972) which was produced by Shaw Brothers Studio. And this fact should give you an indication of the sort of film you should be expecting.
Minimal story, minimal characterization and lots of action. But director Wong Ching-po deviates from the old school formula a little. Wherever he can he is trying to make the film into something more than it is. The choice of cinematography for example. I guess he wanted to have a more artsy look for some reason. Therefore this film is shot almost entirely in black and white where only some parts have slight color. Nowhere near as cool or stylish as it was in Sin City so seemed rather pointless if you ask me. Then there is the attempt to make the film a little more edgy by making it appear that there is more to the story and the characters while in truth there is nothing exceptional going on. The dynamics between Andy On and Philip Ng were interesting and I wished they would have done more with this. But of course that would have been too much to ask. Beware though for Andy On slightly hamming it up. But it was never distracting or ridiculous. The villains in the film serve their purpose who are greedy for money and power. Still would it have hurt to make them even more evil? As they are now they are hardly memorable.
Fortunately it does not matter that much since this film obviously is focused on the action and that without a doubt is top notch. Philip Ng shows over and over again that he is a force to be reckoned with and him attempting to not use deadly force reminded me of the character Bruce Lee was playing in The Big Boss. You know where he had vowed to never fight ever again. Luckily for us Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng) is not as limited as Bruce Lee's character was and he gets into action more than enough to give the viewer his martial arts fix. I am very surprised to see that Philip has not been given lead roles before. He has everything you want and then some. Let's hope he will be given more chances in future to shine. Upcoming project of note is Birth of the Dragon where he will play as Bruce Lee. Last but not least Sammo Hung also gets to kick ass briefly. He has a supporting role and while not that substantial it is always nice to have him around.
Overall this is one for the martial arts fans where the story is in service of the action and that is fine by me. The action by the way is choreographed by none other than Yuen Woo-Ping. That alone should be reason enough to check this out.