The Japanese invasion of China begins.
Rumble in the Bronx, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are all films that have become successful in the United States and have helped spark a renewed interest in Asian cinema. As such, many hidden gems—and quite a few ugly rocks—have come to disc over the past few years. Interest in these films has never been stronger, and one of the most accessible forms for us Americans is the martial arts flick. Magnificent Warriors, or for purists Zhong hua zhan shi ("Born Fighter"), stars one of the biggest crossover stars in the genre, Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies, Supercop 2). She's good, but is she good enough to make this film a gem?
Facts of the Case
It's 1939 and Japan has begun an invasion of China. There are only a few small pockets of Chinese resistance, which are greatly overpowered by the vast Japanese army. Aviatrix Fok Ming-Ming (Yeoh) has been recruited by her grandfather to help a local resistance cell; her task: deliver Lord Youda, a besieged nobleman, to safety. Her first step is to meet up with Youda's contact, Sky Number One, and devise a plan to ferry him out without alerting General Toga, the commander of the invading forces. But everything quickly collapses as Ming-Ming, Sky, and Youda are captured by Toga and are sentenced to death. Will they escape? Will the resistance be crushed? Will the Japanese be able to take over all of China?
I am extremely forgiving when it comes to martial arts films, for I don't often care if there's much of a plot. All I really need is enough of a concept to tie everything together, some passable dialogue, and a modest attempt at acting. But, never ever skimp on a fight sequence; that's why we tune in. Even with these exceptionally lenient standards, I've unfortunately had to call too many kung fu flicks "bad" because they forgot why they were made in the first place. What we want to see is swift, precise, and amazingly choreographed fight sequences. Whether they come from the Jackie Chan school of props and jaw dropping acrobatics or the more sedate, fluid form of Chow Yun Fat, this type of film simply has to prove that it knows how to compose a martial arts sequence.
It is with pleasure that I say that Magnificent Warriors is a good, but not magnificent, film. Let's look at my list and see what the film has going for it. First, what's the concept? Simple, Japan invades China and the resistance must fight back. Sounds like a good start, allowing plenty of fighting opportunities. Second, is there passable dialogue? On this count, the film just ekes by due to some truly poor dubbing. It seems the translators forgot the movie was set in 1939, as everyone uses far too many modern aphorisms, often erasing the thin veneer of believability. (Did they really call each other bitches in 1939?) Third, how's the acting? It's a mixed bag. Most of the principal actors do acceptable work, but the supporting cast is truly awful. Those minor characters are far too silly and come across as caricatures instead of characters. Last, what's the fighting like? The fighting is quite excellent. Magnificent Warriors is interspersed with many exciting and complicated fight sequences. There's one-on-one fighting, armies versus armies, and every combination in between. The martial arts action is quite superb, with a smart balance of tense and fun action scenes. It all comes perfectly together for the climax: a huge battle of the Japanese army against Lord Youda's oppressed townsfolk. With each passing minute, the tension mounts as the battle slowly escalates. There is no slowdown as it constantly builds to a completely satisfying, and somewhat surprising, conclusion.
Additionally, Magnificent Warriors is an overall well-crafted film. With crisp direction, sharp cinematography, and solid set design, this movie is a step above the growing collection of run-of-the-mill martial arts flicks. All together, it's a nice package.
But, it's hard to say the same thing about the DVD, as there are a few serious flaws with the transfers. Primarily, the 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are awful. Both the original Cantonese and the English dubbed tracks are very difficult to listen to, as they are replete with problems. They are extremely hollow, lacking any upper-end dynamic range; there's poor use of the surrounds; and the bass is practically non-existent. But that's almost forgivable if you can understand the movie itself, which is quite difficult here. I'll admit I prefer the English dubs on martial arts films, so I always pick that option first. In this case, the English dub is pitiful and cannot be listened to. You cannot understand the dialogue, the music overpowers the vocals, and, simply, the harmonics are completely inaccurate. Luckily, the original Cantonese is more acoustically correct but still a difficult listen.
On the video front, the anamorphic widescreen transfer is only acceptable but far better than its audio counterpart. The print is a bit soft and grainy, with accurate but subdued colors, weak blacks, and an occasional spot of shimmering. There are no other errors, much to my delight, even in the light of the extreme use of smoke and fog, which doesn't cause any artifacting that I could detect.
There are a few bonus features to take a look at; they may not be much, but I appreciate the effort to add some extra content to this 16-year-old film. There's a photo gallery, exclusive interviews with Michelle Yeoh and Tung Wai, a Michelle Yeoh biography and photo gallery, some original film artwork, and a bevy of trailers for Magnificent Warriors, City Hunter, Naked Killer, Magnificent Butcher, Hong Kong 1941, Heart of Dragon, Kiss of the Dragon, and The Transporter. Again, nothing deep or extensive, but a nice attempt nonetheless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm trying to sit and be entertained by this piece of Asian martial arts cinema, yet the entire time my mind keeps insisting that I must be watching Adam West in China. This film feels more like an episode of the 1960s Batman because of the corny dialogue, trite "bif," "zow," and "boink" sound effects, and terrible background music. The only things missing were Adam West and Burt Ward themselves.
Remembering what's most important in its genre, Magnificent Warriors succeeds in being an excellent martial arts film. Complete with an abundance of remarkable fights and tricks, this film would delight any serious or casual fan. Michelle Yeoh is the best female martial artist on film, at least as far as we've seen here in the States. She's extremely skilled and is a formidable challenge. Her role in this film is another successful notch in her résumé, and it is one that many have not seen. As such, I solidly recommend this film for any fan of this style of film. It's probably not worth a full purchase, but it will certainly provide a complete evening's worth of entertainment as a rental.
Definitely a gem, Magnificent Warriors is hereby found not guilty of all charges. Long live the resistance!
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