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Martial Arts in Media 4/12

Things are looking up. Donnie Yen has signed for another Ip Man movie (in 3D yet). The advertisements for Stephen Fung’s (House of Fury) new film, Tai Chi 0 (the first in a planned trilogy), have gone up in Beijing (and the movie has been sold to Well Go USA for U.S. release as well). That gives me a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow (hee hee), but for right now, the pickings continue to be disappointing — both in quantity and quality.

First in prominence and pedigree is Flying Swords of Dragon Gate – Tsui Hark’s second shot at King Hu’s landmark Dragon Gate Inn (1967). He made an effective stab at it in 1992, with Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and, as the powerful eunuch villain, Donnie Yen. I have fond memories of that not only because it was a good film and Donnie’s demise (at the hands of a cleaver-wielding chef) was unforgettable, but because the DVD edition contained one of my better audio commentaries.

This version, however, began with a big “uh-oh.” If you’re going to use cgi, why go way out of your way to alert the audience that what they’re seeing isn’t real? FSoDG begins with a sweeping view of a mythical Ming Dynasty waterfront, with the “camera” swooping through places no camera could go, even if it was attached to an unladen swallow. That all but announces that it’s time to disconnect your brain, because nothing that follows will have any bearing on reality.

There may have been method to Hark’s digital madness, because nothing that followed really did. He’s gone on record that this is a “re-imagining” rather than a remake, and, true to his word, he extends the opening to establish a whole bunch of super-powered heroes who wish to eradicate the emperor’s super-powered assassins known as the Western Bureau, led by a supremely powerful eunuch.

Tsui has returned to the manhua (Chinese comicbook) visualizations and editing of his original Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983), flavored with the cgi he ladled over its remake Legend of Zu (2001). The result is something of an alternately interesting and disappointing chop-socky-suey, with sweet touches of gravity-based kung fu (credited to Yuen Bun and Han Lan-hai) soured by the always unwelcome intrusion of wires.

Although Jet Li is sold as the star, playing prime patriot Chow Wai-on, he disappears from the plot for large hunks of time, as Tsui crams a veritable platoon of other swordfolk into the mix – including such welcome old faithfuls as Gordon Liu, Louis Fan, and Sun Jian-kui (Kids from Shaolin’s villain) as well as such personable newcomers as Zhou Xun (True Legend), Aloys Chen (Let the Bullets Fly), Li Yuchun (Bodyguards and Assassins), and, as a particularly personable Tartar, Guey Lun-mei … among, believe me, many, many others.

Hark keeps things hopping with the political and personal machinations once everyone meets up at the Dragon Inn — even wedging in the hoariest of devices, the surprise exact twin (one a thief, the other, believe it or not, a princess-whipped emperor!). But once he introduces a prophecy about a mythical sandstorm that will destroy the inn to reveal a lost city full of riches (and, as it turns out, left-field betrayals and bloody booby-traps as well), the house of cgi cards he has tenuously erected starts to crumple.

Even then, there’s enough action and color to keep belief barely suspended, despite the fact that the re-imagined eunuch’s defeat is not nearly as giddily memorable as Donnie Yen’s demise (actually anti-climatic, in fact). But all would have been forgiven if Tsui had pulled off the climatic countdown as the slaying sandstorm returns, looming over our heroes at the last possible second…!

But Tsui cuts. Smash cuts, in fact. To afterwards. As if he had run out of money. You know the old story about “Hoppy in the valley”? In one of the latter-day Hopalong Cassidy westerns, filmmakers had their hero trapped in a valley so thoroughly that the audience breathlessly waited to see how he could possibly escape. But the next thing they knew, Hoppy was back at the ranch, with his sidekick asking: “How did you get out of the valley?” His answer? “No time now. I’ll tell you later.” But he never did.

Neither does Tsui. Instead he tacks on an deflating finale that had exactly one, long-previous, scene as set-up. It’s a shame. There’s enough good stuff in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate that I was rooting for it. But that fade-out? It would be like me not even finishing thi

Next on the miss parade is The Viral Factor, a new world-hopping action thriller by Dante Lam, the eager writer/producer/actor/director of such previous well-mounted productions as Beast Cops (1998), Hit Team (2001), The Twins Effect (2003), and the award-winning Beast Stalker in 2008. His newest, sadly, is a frenetic, wearying, mess.

A military team is forced to protect a scientist who has taken a deadly strain of smallpox hostage. One (Andy On of True Legend fame) betrays the others, and takes the smallpox for his evil gweilo boss, who plans to make billions on the cure once he releases the disease to the world. During his escape, Andy lodges a bullet in another team member’s brain (Jay Chou of Green Hornet “fame”). Although not killed by the slug, he’s given just a few weeks to live, and dedicates his time to saving the world.

You’d think that was enough story, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Dante wastes loads of time giving the bullet-brained guy a long lost criminal brother (Nicholas Tse, a veteran Dante muse) who has a cute-as-a-button daughter just so the villains can use her as a smallpox guinea pig, while Jay and Nick’s mom spends loads more screen time wailing about keeping each brother a secret from the other.

As a result, the plot-heavy effort swings wildly between eye-slicing chases and teeth-gnashing melodrama for more than two hours. Like Flying Swords before it, there’s some sweet stuff in Viral Factor (like a fight in an over-turned s.u.v.), but better you should see that scene in my San Diego Comic Con Kung Fu Extravaganza than wade through the increasingly ludicrous histrionics of the whole viral shebang.

Recently Lincoln Center had a twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Jackie Chan’s Police Story in honor of its triumphant presentation at the New York Film Festival two and a half decades ago. It was a delight to join many fellow travelers there, but a displeasure to realize that the print they screened not only looked that old, but was one of the worst edited as well.

The original Japanese cut of the film was its most complete, cohesive, and satisfying. It contained a prolog that established that it was Jackie’s birthday, as well as his fellow cops’ characters, which each paid off later. It also contained a fine epilog where each of the leads got a defining moment (rather than the abrupt freeze-frame the Chinese and American audiences were left with). And it also had the best selection of outtakes during the end credits, finishing with the wonderful moment when Jackie exults that he survived the climatic three-story slide down a shopping mall light fixture.

Not only was all of that missing from the recent Lincoln Center print, but so, too, were at least two other entire sequences, as well as some other prime end credit out-takes that would have gone much farther in explaining why the film had been such a ground-breaking, game-changing hit in 1985. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see it back on the big screen. I only wish I could have seen it better (but I went right home and watched all three of my international DVD versions of it, so no wux).

Finally, I’ve been repeatedly asked to react to the recent “noose Medea” hand-wringing concerning Michael Bay’s planned “re-imagining” of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Well, as a person who appreciated their original comic book releases (by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird way back in 1984) and the first film (by Steve Barron in 1990), I say more power to him. The Turtles have had countless (by me at any rate) comic, television, and movie incarnations, in both animation and live action, not to mention numerous toy and merchandising manifestations. They’ve even had a concert tour for pity’s sake.

So do your worst, Mister Bay. It’s not like many others haven’t done their worst before you.