I am a big fan of martial arts films. I watch them constantly and although I prefer the more gritty realistic ones like The Raid Redemption, I do enjoy a good wirework fantasy swordplay extravaganza too. So when I heard that Tsui Hark‘s new film, Flying Sword of Dragon Gate 3D, starred Jet Li and was in IMAX 3D, I was 100% sold. I went excited to a matinee with maybe 20 other people. Having already read some reviews that said the plot is a bit muddled, but that the fight scenes were worth sticking around for, I felt the bar was set in a good middle ground place. Oh, and did I mention I took a Dramamine beforehand? Just in case. Any kids reading this, just wait till you hit 30, 3D movies are more like an assault to your senses, then they are a movie. So, drugged up on anti-nausea medicine and stoked for some flying swords, I settle into my seat as the credits start to roll and it’s clear from the start 3D is the only way to see this film. Hit the jump for my review of the Blu-ray.
Within the first minute of the film, Tsui Hark really wants the audience to know right away that this will not be a subtle 3D movie, as the camera swoops in and out of various ships’ masts ending on an imperial court, already it’s testing my motion sickness. Luckily the rest of the film isn’t such a visual roller coaster, but don’t worry there are plenty of swords flying straight at camera, in fact there is a whole lot of flying stuff: giant logs, knives, head bands, blood droplets, people, flags, the list goes on and on. I’m not listing all of these things saying it’s a bad thing, it’s actually pretty awesome. If you’re going to shoot a martial arts film in 3D, you better make full use of it and Tsui Hark misses no opportunity… but unfortunately, no opportunity to overcomplicate the plot is missed either.
The plot of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is incredibly dense and confusing, leading to a relatively simple conclusion. Starting with a long expository narration about the Emperor during the end of the Ming Dynasty and how his Eunuchs have gotten corrupt and so a West and East Bureau have been formed to basically spy on each other and execute any people that might be a threat to their power… or at least that’s what I think is going on. There are a ton of characters in this film to keep straight, we have Jet Li who is part of an underground movement to usurp the evil Eunuch Warlord, a pregnant concubine who’s fled with her bodyguard to avoid being executed (the bodyguard also has a past with Jet Li and impersonates him when attacking the emperor’s troops), there’s a group of of tattooed savages called the Tartars, a man who happens to look identical to the evil Eunuch, the Eunuchs guards looking for Jet Li, and the owners of Dragon Inn. Which by the way, is where the majority of the film takes place. All of these nefarious bad guys and noble heroes converge on this one Inn in the middle of the desert right before an apocalyptic sandstorm that is supposed to reveal a hidden city of treasures, if the storm doesn’t kill them or they don’t kill each other first. Lots of double-crossing happens, unlikely alliances are formed, and a pretty epic 30-minute (at least) climatic battle that gets everybody involved in the fray, tons of awesome swordplay and stunt work, there’s even an insanely ridiculous fight inside a tornado. The film is moderately violent for this genre. There is minimal bloodshed throughout, just barely enough to earn an R rating, but usually this style of martial arts film ignores blood completely. I appreciated the fact that it was added in there for a little bit of realism to the fantasy world.
When the action is happening and the 3D is in full effect, this movie is pretty awesome and visually breathtaking to watch, but when the action comes to a screeching halt multiple times for long dialogue scenes belabored with plot and backstabbing, the movie starts to drag. It gets frustratingly long in parts, but always managed to pull me back in once the fighting started back up. Its scope and grandeur can get away from itself sometimes and get a little on the cheeseball side with some hammy acting and silly choices during some moments of the battles. The CG gets a little too much in some of the fight scenes where it clearly is not a real person doing the stunt. Overall the action scenes are fun to watch.
All the nit-picking details aside, I had an enjoyable time watching the film in IMAX 3D, it was really cool to see so much flying at you out of the screen constantly and the fantasy element of the film really lent itself to justifying the 3D. I can honestly say some of the fight scenes are like nothing I’ve ever seen before in a 3D movie. Watching it again at home, however, some of the visual awe is lost in 2D and the cheesy moments look even worse without the flashy distraction of 3 dimensions. I would highly recommend seeking out a friend with a 3D television if you’re planning on watching this film; it really is the only way to see it. I’m hoping that Tsui Hark takes another stab, pun intended, at a 3D martial arts flick. My only hope is that next time he simplifies the plot and character list just a tad. He is one of the best at this genre and I think a second 3D feature will be a bit more refined, just hope that actually comes to fruition.
- Making of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate- Divided into 2 parts, 13 minutes total
- Interviews with Cast and Filmmakers- 20 minutes
- Behind the Scenes- 30 minutes with tons of footage of fight rehearsals