When the assassins come looking for Judge Jason Panella, they can find him on his couch.
"The safest place to call home is within the dust."
The age of the Han Dynasty comes to a close with a tale of political intrigue, doomed romance, and hokey computer-enhanced bloodshed.
Facts of the Case
In the last few years of his life, Chinese warrior-poet Cao Cao (Chow Yun-Fat, A Better Tomorrow) tries to keep the kingdom together, fends off revolts and assassination attempts, and laments the legacy of death he's left.
Cao Cao was one of the key figures in the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, and popular opinion of him over the centuries hasn't been kind. He's traditionally been depicted as a cruel, unscrupulous villain who would do anything in his quest for power. However, there's been attempt in recent years to put Cao Cao in a more sympathetic—or at least more balanced—light. The Assassins, written by Hero scribe Wang Hailin and directed by newcomer Zhao Linshan, takes the latter route as a slow-moving character piece.
The titular characters are Lingju (Liu Yifei, The Forbidden Kingdom) and her lover Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki, Midnight Eagle), both orphaned children of Cao Cao's deceased enemies, infiltrating the warlord's entourage with revenge in mind. The film shifts between scenes of tense political intrigue at the palace of Emperor Xian (Alec Su, Princess Returning Pearl) and quiet moments at Cao Cao's insanely awesome home. These work well, but there isn't much hand-holding with respect to Chinese history, so if you're not familiar with the basics of the Three Kingdom era, you might get lost. It also doesn't help that the subtitles are near impossible to read in spots.
Where the movie stumbles is in its few action segments. Moving away from the slow and believable historical elements, the battle scenes are hyper-stylized and goofy, characters pulling off wire-fu moves as CGI blood splatters with cartoonish sound effects. This wouldn't be so bad, if every shot wasn't shown in slow motion or sped up beyond comprehension. To make matters worse, the violence itself is boring when compared with scenes of people talking quietly amongst themselves.
As for performances, the cast is quite good and Chow Yun-Fat is ever the magnetic presence on the screen. His Cao Cao is merciless, but also compassionate and incredibly introspective. He looks at his collection of weapons from fallen enemies with sadness, and manages to pull off how sick of death Cao Cao is with just a few facial expressions. The Assassins has quite a few characters dealing with moral quandaries, and each member of the cast handles them well. It's just too bad the few corny fight scenes muck it all up.
Well Go USA's 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer is striking, with its slower outdoor-set segments looking particularly radiant. Of course the HD highlights the film's fake-looking action, and black levels are far too heavy in most nighttime scenes. Both the simple Dolby 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks (in original Mandarin and English dub) are balanced and clear, despite composer Shigeru Umebayashi's generic-sounding score. Not much in the way of bonus features: just an original theatrical trailer and a chaotic behind-the-scenes featurette.
While some parts don't add up, The Assassins is a well-made, thoughtful historical drama.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
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