Hey, did you know there’s a 3D Imax martial-arts movie coming out this weekend, starring Jet Li and directed by Tsui Hark?
Better question: having written that sentence, need I say anything more about Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, or does that logline pretty much sell itself? Since we wouldn’t have much of a review if we left things there, more is in order. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a whole lot of the wire-work heavy wuxia stuff from Hong Kong in our theaters on a regular basis, and the casual viewer’s memory likely leans toward Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, both among the most earnestly dramatic movies ever made about martial artists who can incidentally defy gravity. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is not one of those; it is an unapologetic gimmick film that, for the most part, milks the 3D Imax effect harder than a newborn calf on its mother’s teat. If you don’t have a case of vertigo after the opening titles, which swoop around and through various ship riggings in a gigantic harbor while the main titles zoom in from the background at a completely different angle…you might want to check your pulse. If you’re anybody else, you might want to enter the theater on an empty stomach. In a good way.
The opening credits are the most travel-sickness-testing, but the movie has many other in-your-face tricks up its baggy, snappy sleeves, from the giant logs rolled into your face and split mid-air, to moments of wire-walking across a cliff, and a demi-climactic mid-air duel inside a swirling sandstorm that flings houses and boulders at our two combatants (and our laps, metaphorically) while still managing to stay marginally comprehensible.
Now the bad news: there’s a bunch of plot in the middle that’s boring and not really important. Considering how much of the “acting” on display here consists of the sort of mugging so broad that Vince McMahon would probably ask pro wrestlers to tone things down if they behaved likewise, the parts of the film that settle down to tell a tale might involve intrigue and deception, but they won’t involve you too much after all those crazy, preposterously high-wire battles have amped you up.
Basically, after several set-up battles, a bunch of different groups descend upon a desert establishment called the Dragon Inn – subject of at least two prior films, of which this may be a sorta-remake-or-sequel. There’s a concubine fleeing the royal palace because she’s pregnant, who is protected by, essentially, a female Jet Li impersonator. There’s Jet Li, freedom fighter, who’s out for revenge against an evil eunuch who leads the Imperial Assassins. Tartars, all of whom are facially tattooed and wear heavy armor, are involved as well. Plus the evil eunuch himself, and several other treasure hunters (one of whom is a convenient eunuch lookalike), who all know that the imminent sandstorm is likely to reveal a lost city of gold, or something. Oh, and this Inn is not the nicest place to be – newcomers get served – and served up – as the daily meat if they don’t follow the unwritten rules.
So the whole middle part is set in and around the inn as the storm approaches (there are secret tunnels underneath), and characters try to feel out the situation. Think of it as like the “getting to know you” part of a date, after you already got awesomely laid by a few people you never met before. Yes, once you learn to feel for the person(s) you’re getting to know, the climactic action will be some next-level glory stuff. But will you care enough after that to want further adventures together?
Bottom line: this movie ain’t a relationship, folks. It’s a one-night stand, and as such, could probably have been more concise. But you won’t forget it in the morning; just the boring bits.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate opens this weekend for one week only. Find a real Imax screen if you can.