Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
This film was apparently based on a TV series which I’ve never seen, which would probably explain why I spent the better part of it completely lost, unable to follow the plot and wondering who Donnie Yen reminded me of.
Although I doubt a lack of familiarity with the original series was the only thing contributing to my inability to know what was going on. The plot, as thin as it is to begin with, was scattered in fragments with no coherent thread to link it all together. It was really there to serve as a way to get in more of the film's impressive fight scenes. Characters were introduced for seconds and killed shortly after before any chance for an emotional connection to be forged that would make me care. Their deaths, nonetheless, are accompanied with sentimental rises in the music and tear-filled introspective looks of sorrow that gave me the feeling that I was meant to cry, or at least feel remotely sad. Or at least stop thinking about how awesome it would be if this film were a video game instead.
Because it would have made a brilliant, exhilarating video game. Excellent action choreography more than made up for the flaws in plot quality: Each precise, stylised punch and kick packed more satisfaction than what I've experienced in any recent film to date. I imagined imaginary combo hits and health bars. I wanted an Xbox controller. Wonderfully crisp audio that really added to the fight sequences and made its (few) spectacular explosions all the more spectacular. It also made my right ear hurt, but that is the price one pays for art and for sitting too close to the speakers.
The sets were another high point of the film: Exquisitely-crafted period sets and costumes alternating between rich, hyper-real colour palettes (very, very good) and a just-slightly-ridiculous amount of the orange/teal colour scheme so prevalent in contemporary films (not so good). Normally used to make faces pop from the background, in this case it looked as though there were a bunch of disembodied heads floating about. At slow points of the story, this was highly entertaining.
The high quality production design and sound effects were worthy of a far better script than the one they had been given. The plot came through in sometimes unconnected patches, including among other things a tacked-on plot device romance that seemed so out of place until its plot-device-ness was revealed in another one of those scenes obviously set up, unsuccessfully, to be emotional.
Simply put, the story was incapable of keeping my attention. I never engaged with the screen or the events unfolding on it and couldn't bring myself to care about any of the characters. More than once, the rousing music and vibrant quick cuts made me feel as though I should be feeling all hyped up and excited with my pulse racing and my hand rushing for my expired asthma inhaler, but instead I felt nothing; just that click of realisation when I finally figured out who Donnie Yen reminded me of - James Kyson Lee, who played Ando in Heroes; which made me think of Zachary Quinto; which made me think of Star Trek. Then I realised that there was a film playing and that I should attempt to at least try to pay attention. But the gorgeous sets would pull my mind away again, away from the plot and celluloid declarations of Chinese patriotism, and I found myself just waiting for it to be over.
In the meantime, I could turn off my brain and enjoy the scenery.