Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Don’t be fooled by the title. This is a new version of the “New Dragon Gate Inn”, yet another reimagination of the classic King Hu film. What’s most surprising is the overall slickness of the special effects and the 3D, which is handled well, even if you get sick of dodging the flying knives coming at you by the end of the first hour.
In this costume drama, the plot revolves around how various groups with their own agendas have a showdown at the Dragon Gate Inn, a run-down hovel in the middle of a desert.
The main parties involved are rebel swordsman Zhao (Jet Li), Ling Yao Qiu (Zhou Xun) - a female martial artist who loves the swordsman, a pregnant palace maid (Mavis Fan), Yu Hua Tian (Chen Kun) - the eunuch general who secretly runs most of China, a band of Tartar warriors and of course, the folks that run the inn who aren’t your usual cowering types.
Thrown into all this is a gigantic sandstorm, treasure hunters, betrayals and a fragmented love story, and you have a muddled martial arts saga that, like those flying daggers, are hit and miss.
The movie starts off with Zhao slaying an eunuch general (played by Gordon Liu), and later pulled into help a pregnant palace maid. It takes about an hour before heroes and villains converge on the inn itself, and things are further complicated by the fact that one of the inn’s guests bears a striking resemblance to the central villain.
Director Tsui Hark dispenses the usual martial art cliché characters, and with such a large ensemble, it’s hard to make each and everyone of them three-dimensional. Compared to the 1982 version of “Dragon’s Gate Inn”, there’s a lot more special effects and wire-fu, but the CG hasn’t really made the action any more spectacular; it often becomes distracting and confusing to follow.
No doubt there are some standout scenes. Zhao and Yu battle it out in the middle of a whirling tornado, and some of the set pieces are quite imaginative. However, there is gratuitous use of special effects that does very little to serve the story.
Main lead Jet Li shows the weariness of age, and he doesn’t move as sharply as he used to. He spends half the film with a pained look on his face, which heavily lessens the dramtics. Zhou Xun fairs a little better, but her role is still underwritten. The person having the most fun is Chen Kun, who plays the main villain and has a role on the other side as well.
Tsui Hark still has a fascination for fly-throughs, asking the audience to admire the work put into the film, but it’s hard to feel excited by all this much.
The worst fault is a desperate attempt to emulate “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” style dramatics at the end, but it’s hard to when the characters are so flat. Nonetheless, “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” is watchable; now if it would take itself less seriously…