When Judge Josh Rode was a child, he wanted an empire of kittens.
Neither one will stop until they know the truth.
Back in 2008 Chinese television director Dou Xiao set about making an epic three-part 120-episode television series entitled Legend of Shaolin Kungfu. What's that have to do with us? Well, everything, it turns out.
See, instead of packaging the entire series onto Region 1 DVDs and shipping them over here, someone decided it would be better to send us a series of bastardized episodes in the form of short films. The first was 2010's Kung-Fu Master; now we have Empire of Assassins.
Facts of the Case
Wang Shi Chong (Leung Kar Yan, Legend of the Swordsman) is hell-bent on taking over China, so he sends his assassin squads to destroy all of the major martial arts schools. Since he is apparently interested in long-term sociology experiments as well, he saves the life of a boy during one of the raids and raises him as his own son. He allows the boy's older brother to live also, for the sole purpose of pitting the two against each other when they grow up.
Martial arts movies are all about the action. We watch to see acrobatic jumps and kicks, punches thrown so fast you can't even see the fist before it has connected with someone's nose and let loose a spray of blood, and a variety of weapons so wide it seems never ending. I mean, there are films in which some fighters' weapon of choice is a metal hoop! I've never thought of my steering wheel as an instrument of destruction.
I took my first paragraph to say all of that just so I can tell you this: without question, the acting is the best part of Empire of Assassins.
Seriously, the acting is pretty good across the board. Miu Tse (you might know him if you're a fan of Jet Li's work; Miu played Jet's son in both The Enforcer and Legend of the Red Dragon under the name Xie Miao) plays older brother Zhang Tianbao with a steady mix of anger, worry, despair, and desperation. Younger brother Wang Renyi (Li Yuan, The Book and the Sword) is desperate too, but more for his adopted father's approval than anything else. Even the bad guys aren't as over-the-top as you might expect from this kind of film. They usually seem more amused than angry.
That being said, the dubbing is dreadful. So dreadful, in fact, that the characters' lips often fail to match the lines…when they're spoken in Chinese! The subtitles are word-for-word with the English dubbing and are spoken by people with really annoying voices. The lines come across as someone's idea of how English phrases might sound ("Shut up, coward! You should die today!"). They also took the time to subtitle sounds ("Oh! Ah!").
I'm not saying the fighting isn't good. It is, for the most part, although everything here has been seen a thousand times before. All the main characters get to show plenty of moves and lots of fake looking blood is spilled. And we get a break from the wire work that has become all too prevalent these days.
The problem isn't with the actors' abilities, it's in the choreography; the timing of many of the fights is way off. A prime example happens early on, when Tianbao is attempting to infiltrate Chong's palace and is beset by several guards. While our hero is busy fighting one guard, another stands behind him, sword in the air, and very politely waits until the first guard is dead before attempting a swing. You can almost see the extras counting to themselves to get to their cues at the right time.
The fighting is accompanied by an alarming amount of dust. In reality it's because Xiao thinks that fighting looks more dramatic when every step and punch has a visual cue to go along with the dubbed sound effects so they cover everything with baby powder, but all it actually accomplished was to make me wonder how the housekeeping staff kept their heads.
The film direction and editing also leave a lot to be desired. A lot of the fights are hampered by poor camera angles and close-ups that cut out the action, not to mention the gratuitous slow motion shots.
There are many notable continuity errors, especially at the less than climatic battle between the brothers near the end where they start at night on the ground; find themselves on the roof of a house without transition; and are then magically transported to a river canyon in broad daylight, where Renyi has not only found time to change all of his clothes but has also acquired allies. Then Tianbao apparently beats San Te's record of getting through the first 34 Chambers of Shaolin because he seems to become a full-fledged, Shaolin-trained monk in what seems to be about three days.
The movie says it is in 5.1 surround, and if by that they mean that sound comes out of all five speakers and the subwoofer is active, then it is true. However, pretty much everything comes out of the center speaker, with a little bit of bleeding to the sides. The rear speakers are reserved for the unobtrusive music. The picture is a tad dark and grainy at times, but it is serviceable. Extras are non-existent, unless you count trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Empire of Assassins takes itself very seriously, but it works as great comedy. I laughed all the way through the climax.
What we have here are the deleted scenes, practice shots, and cutting-room floor snippets of an epic television show spliced together, over-dubbed with different lines when needed to tie in its nonsensical plot, and packaged to pander to what someone clearly thinks is an ignorant consumer base who doesn't care about trivial things like plot or theme or continuity or decent writing as long as someone is getting his butt kicked. Go watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the umpteenth time instead.
Guilty as can be.
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