Listen as Judge Jason Panella tells the tale of the western PA bandits.
Welcome to the wild east.
A handful of creative scenes can't save Eastern Bandits from being a mess.
Facts of the Case
Chinese freedom fighter Gao (Zhang Yi, Beginning of the Great Revival) has a plan. After watching his compadres get gunned down during the second Sino-Japanese War, Gao decides to strike back at the Japanese invaders by enlisting the help of some formidable Chinese bandits. But there's a problem—these bandits are way more interested in spending their money on booze and women than putting the hurt on their oppressors.
Gao sets up an elaborate scheme to infiltrate the gang's ranks and get them to fight the good fight. If he can get the gang to help kidnap a visiting Japanese prince, that would be an impressive coup for the home team. Gao's goal is to gain the help of charismatic gang leader Fang (Huang Xiao-ming, Ip Man 2) and his team before the Japanese soldiers wipe all of them out.
I love the idea of tossing a western, crime thriller, comedy, and war film in a blender and getting a DQ Blizzard of genre awesomeness. I really do. And it's not like this sort of genre-pulping is unprecedented, either—in fact, I think it has a much better track record in Asian cinema than in the west. I dug both The Good The Bad The Weird and Let the Bullets Fly, two Asian flicks that found a good balance between all of the genres.
These sorts of genre mash-ups live or die based on how well everything hangs together. Eastern Bandits (original title: An Inaccurate Memoir) kicks off in medias res, with a cool, gracefully shot sequence of the protagonists working undercover during a formal party for Japanese officers. But as soon as Gao's narrative pauses the action and rewinds things three years, the movie starts sliding downhill fast.
Director Yang Shu-peng (The Robbers) quickly introduces the eclectic group of bandits: the aforementioned Fang, the dashing leader; his clever sister, Jen (Zhang Xin Yi, Love Is Not Blind); and the deadly knife expert (Ni Jing-yang). Oh, and the crazy guy, the explosives expert, the heroic dandy, the schoolgirl with the katana, and so on. The "ragtag bunch of misfits" thing is an old trope, but when done well it's enjoyable. But Eastern Bandits never gives the colorful protagonists time to do anything interesting, nor does it expand on their personalities. So while there are a few brief attempts at building backstories for the characters, they essentially move around as a single boring entity with little to distinguish them from one another. Which makes the climactic battle scenes land with a plop—a character or two dies in slow motion, and so what? Who was that again? Gao fares the best here, and the burgeoning romance between he and Jen shows some signs of life. The rest…not so much.
The biggest sin Eastern Bandits commits: It's boring. The film is chock full of battle scenes, some recalling western heists and others large-scale war film assaults. Sadly, they're almost all unintelligible. The sheer volume of non-stop gunfire in the movie is not proportional to excitement or clarity—it's hard to mess this sort of thing up, but what's on the screen is neither stylish nor substantial.
The movie isn't all bad, though. There are a few really creative scenes, like the thrilling opening sequence I mentioned earlier. And thankfully, Yang revisits the opening scene after the sprawling flashback that engulfs most of the movie. He also approaches the antagonists with a ridiculous level of vitriol. (Antagonists who are so bad, I might add, that they play soccer with the skull of a Chinese prisoner.) The few strokes of broad humor help give the film some life, too—the big bank heist scene's punchline in particular got a big laugh from me. It's just not enough to make Eastern Bandits a good movie.
Well Go USA's release of Eastern Bandits is as underwhelming as the movie. The 2.35:1/1080p widescreen transfer sometimes looks great (lighting effects in particular look great), but the image is surprisingly hazy in spots. And for a movie that spends so much time in dark caves, and I was surprised at how uneven the black levels look. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track got the job done, though gunfire sounds hollow. The oddly placed bits of score are also mixed a little too high. Don't expect much in the way of trailers: in addition to some promos for other Well Go titles, there's also the film's theatrical trailer (2:00) and nothing else.
Interesting ideas, miserable execution.
Guilty of not living up to its potential.
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