Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2011 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 10th, 2012
A storm is coming.
In 1992, Legendary wuxia director Hark Tsui (Once upon a Time in China) made a very well-regarded martial arts epic called Dragon Inn, a remake of a 1966 film dealing with the same issues, but using wires and other effects to increase its magical quality. Twenty years later, Tsui decided that, with new technology, what he'd done there wasn't enough, so made a sequel to his classic film. This time, he uses 3D, the first Chinese martial arts epic to use the technology, and while his technical wizardry is perfectly suited to the extra dimension, he forgot that story coherence and interesting characters were important to the movies, as well.
Four years after the previous film, a new power-crazed eunuch (Kun Chen, Let the Bullets Fly, in one of multiple roles in the film) has decided to take control of the desert region of China by force, and is on the trail of a pregnant concubine who has escaped his clutches. A group of freedom fighters led by Zhao Gwai On (Jet Li, The Expendables), though, want to help her escape. As a massive dust storm approaches, both parties, and a few others, converge on the Dragon Gate Inn. The storm gets closer and revelations about a buried treasure come to light as the lot of them prepare for the final battle to determine who really runs the area.
There are a lot of fantasy-inspired martial arts films where story takes a back seat to effects, but rarely has the disparity between the two been so vast as I found in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. During the first half of the two-plus hour production, Tsui throws more plot at the viewer than almost anyone could handle. By the second half, I thought it might settle down and solve some of these issues while dealing out the action, but instead another set of plot points are revealed that convolute the story even more. By the end, I couldn't have cared less who won and who lost and, even if I still managed to care, there was little chance I could have made heads or tails of any of it.
Luckily, the action is vintage wuxia, with hugely elaborate set pieces and wonderfully fast and artistic swordplay. Jet Li may be getting older, but he's still thoroughly convincing as the rebel leader, whether he's fighting the legendary Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), who's in far too little of it, of jumping down off of a hundred foot high chain to help somebody. From a fighting perspective, the only complaint I could have is that it isn't quite as bloody as I would prefer, but that's my own bent; it's fast-paced, creative, and beautifully filmed. It's harder, though, when it's so tough to understand what the heck is going on at any given time.
But there is another reason to watch Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: the 3D presentation. It is maybe the most dynamic and interesting use of the format that I've ever seen, Avatar included. It's flashy, with plenty of stuff flying in every direction at or away from the screen, some in surprising ways, but its use in the atmosphere and landscape is what is so impressive. The threads being cut from robes seem almost close enough to touch and the depth is amazing throughout. And none of that is to even mention the climactic fight inside the tornado, which really has to be seen to be believed. I'm not a huge proponent of the format, but this is the film I would show to somebody to demonstrate the capabilities of 3D on home video.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate comes from Vivendi in a 2-disc Blu-ray release. The first disc is the Blu-ray and the special features, while the second is the 3D Blu-ray presentation. The 3D disc is presented without any extras and, oddly, different subtitles from the 2D version, but it's definitely the disc to watch if you have the ability. It's much brighter than I expected it to be, given the darkness that often plagues the format, and it's always very clear. The only issue that I have is with the subtitles, which vary in position based on where the action is, forcing viewers to continually readjust to where they might be, which is a little annoying. Otherwise, it's a brilliant 3D transfer.
The 2D Blu-ray disc also looks strong, though that it's so clearly made for 3D makes it a little bit distracting. Still, the transfer is clear and deep, with excellent detail throughout. Black levels look fantastic and the colors are beautiful. The sound mix is the same on both discs, a deeply defined surround mix that totally fits the bill. For extras, we have a making-of featurette, broken into two parts for some reason, that runs about half an hour in total and gets into most aspects of the production. A behind the scenes feature shows viewers a little bit more on how these special effects extravaganzas are made, but it's a little bit hard to follow. A few interviews with the cast and crew round out the release.
Technically phenomenal but with dreadful plotting and characterizations, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a decidedly mixed bag. Still, for hardcore wuxia fans and those who want to see some of the best 3D visuals yet to hit the home video market, it's definitely something to watch. If you're mixed on the genre, though, or don't have the capability to watch 3D at home, it's very clearly a film that can be skipped.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* 2D Version