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League of Gods
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by Jay Seaver

"SwordQuest: CrazyChineseFantasyWorld"
4 stars

While a great many other folks in line were catching the day-early screenings of "Suicide Squad", I opted to catch "League of Gods" while I still had a chance. Folks, I can't speak for the thing Warner Brothers is putting out, but if you're going to spend some money at the theater and put on some 3D glasses to watch superhumans battle, check and see if the import from Hong Kong is playing in your area. It is, by most reasonable standards, not exactly a high-quality movie, but it is so dedicated to having something utterly bonkers on screen at all times that it at least demands some attention.

It starts out with a shot of flying battleships laying seige to a stone city, but zooms right past that to introduce King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-fai) of Zhaoge and his royal consort, Daji the Nine-Tailed Fox (Fan Bingbing) as they plot world conquest, although an army from the Ji Clan led by Ji Lei (Jacky Heung Cho) - the last orphaned child of the Wing Clan who also has "Adept Powers" - and foster brother Ji Fa (Andy On Chi-kit) is coming to rescue the Invisible Tribesmen and their Grand Elder (Lee Chi-hung), though the latter requires the powers of Master Jiang (Jet Li), who gets hit by Daji's Reverse Aging Curse. Both sides wind up with one of the Elder's magic eyes that can lead to the Sword of Light, perhaps the only thing that can kill Zhou, who has traded his body for that of a dragon, though both he and Daji look human enough most of the time.

There's more - good golly, there's more; there are about four or five things about Lei's sidekick Naza (Wen Zhang), who is usually but not always a CGI kung-fu baby that are completely insane. Though Ji Fa misses out on most of the excess until the end, the film hs what seems like a couple dozen noteworthy characters that show up as Ji Lei quests for the sword, and none of them are just one thing; they're all got twice as much going on as they need, and all that eventually just gets the movie to a cliffhanger. At times, it feels like the three credited screenwriters figure that they are not likely to make this kind of FX-driven fantasy again, and they pour every wacky idea they have into it, and the producers accommodate them by putting together a pretty spiffy cast.

We've known the end of Jet Li's career as an action star was coming for a while - even before the hyperthyroidism, he's been dialing back the amount of martial arts he does in his films - but it's still a bit of a shock to see him enter the picture as the hundred year-old master with the long white eyebrows that merge with the white beard and still look kind of heavy once the reverse aging starts. It's not all that long ago he would have had Jacky Heung's part, but now he's the crazy master. Truth be told, it suits him better than one might expect from his earlier work, between growing as an actor and having more opportunity to work in his native Mandarin rather than Cantonese or English in recent years, he seems a little more comfortable being funny on-screen, and even if the fights in this basically involve posing at someone, he can still move and gesture with purpose.

It is mostly Heung's movie, though, and while he's not exactly Jet Li in his prime, he looks like a fighter even when Lei's just shooting electricity out of his hands. He handles the comedic bits with goofy aplomb and interacts well enough with the CGI creations that he shares a great many scenes with, although he can't quite find the mark when it's time to be earnestly dramatic. The other folks with larger parts have a little trouble too - it's a bit of a shame that the primary villains played by Tony Leung Ka-fai and Fan Bingbing never seem to have the clarity of evil purpose that Louis Koo's General Leopard does, even if Fan does vamp it up as best she can. Angelababy does make a small, rather silly role charming when she pops in, though.

These guys are dropped into a movie so effects-heavy that Stephen Sommers would probably advise cutting back on the CGI, and while it looks pretty good for a movie that cost $40M American, including plenty of fun use of 3D, having effects in every scene means that there are a fair number that don't look great, even if you allow that complete realism is not the goal and it's okay for Naza and the talking grass and the merfolk to look kind of like cartoons. There's enough of it to become overwhelming, and the actual things director Koan Hui, action director Dion Lam, and the crew do are often on the silly side: The opening battle goes from a lot of random scrambling over blocky terrain to making a boat out of most of the soldiers' shields to escape via a waterway while Lei and Fa surf on theirs, and it never gets less absurd from there. It's light and fast-paced, but there are not a lot of concessions made to those who want any sort of grounded movie that they can describe to other adults without sounding insane.

I, personally, am okay with that every once in a while. I'd say that "League of Gods" is worth watching because you just don't see its like very often, but we did just get "Gods of Egypt" five or six months ago, and the two movies are both results of people willing to spend money to create crazy worlds when reason would have them pull back a little. I like this one a little more, and while I wouldn't necessarily like to see its like every weekend, I do hope it does well enough in China to get that cliffhanger resolved.

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originally posted: 08/05/16 23:57:20
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  29-Jul-2016 (PG-13)

  29-Jul-2016 (12A)


Directed by
  Koan Hui

Written by
  Charcoal Tan
  Chi-Gwong Cheung
  Samson Sun

  Jet Li
  Bingbing Fan
  Zhang Wen
  Jacky Heung
  Louis Koo
  Tony Leung Ka Fai
  Feng Zu
  Andy On

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