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Flying Swords of Dragon Gate
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by Jay Seaver

"There's no better reason for 3D than Tsui Hark and Jet Li doing wire fu."
4 stars

Foreign movies often take a while to open in the United States for a number of reasons, and while the eight months since "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" ("Lee Men Fei Jia") opened in Hong Kong actually isn't terribly egregious, the reason in relatively unique: Distributor Indomina was looking to for a window when the movie could play in Imax 3D, a plan that was nearly foiled at the last minute. Happily, that didn't happen, and those who like crazy Hong Kong action should catch it while they can; it will be fun on video, but Jet Li kicking butt on the giant screen is a rare treat.

As the movie opens, Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li) isn't headed to Dragon Gate Inn; the rebel swordsman is fighting the forces of the East Bureau (one of two separate unchecked government authorities), specifically Eunuch Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu). This attracts the attention of the West Bureau's Eunuch Yu Hautian (Chen Kun), who is also tasked by the Emperor's first concubine to track down pregnant maid Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), who is rescued by Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), although she claims to be Zhao. A curious Zhao follows Su and Liang to Dragon Gate (the best way out of China), where the West Bureau intends to cut them off. Most of the guests are leaving because of the threat of a once-in-three-generations sandstorm, but not Cheng Xaiwen (Kwai Lunmei) and her gang of Tartars, while treasure hunters Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and her partner "Wind Blade" (a dead ringer for Hautian) are late arrivals.

So, yeah, pay attention; those are just the leaders, and many of them have enough partners, henchmen, and soldiers to fill the fight scenes out quite well. Folks impersonate each other, some characters mistake women for men, or just presume based on their fighting prowess (the ladies in this movie are all pretty badass), and to be totally honest, I'm not sure whether "Ling Yanqiu" is that character's actual name or the name of someone else she's impersonating (which apparently ties into 1992's New Dragon Gate Inn, to which this is technically a sequel despite the two not sharing any cast members). It's a busy, busy movie but writer/director Tsui Hark actually makes things fairly easy to follow, mashing the various storylines together with a dispatch that is at once crude and elegant.

Which is cool, because the audience is there for the action, and Tsui Hark delivers. He's in full "give them more!" mode here, shooting in native 3D and having a blast swooping virtual cameras through CGI cities before letting loose elaborate wire-fu action scenes with weapons that run the gamut from logs to throwing knives actually designed to redirect each other in mid-air. Some of the high-flying action seems a bit weightless, sure, but less than you might expect, and for as much as Tsui loves his CGI and moving the camera around, he and martial arts choreographers/action directors Han Lan Hai & Yuen Bun know how to shoot kung fu, giving the audience a clear view of what's going on and using the 3D cinematography to create a sense of physical space.

And understand: Tsui Hark appears to love 3D nearly as much as James Cameron does, using it to make underground environments look extra cool, skies look awesomely threatening, and action scenes informative; it's some of the best use of the format since Hugo. The production designers must have had a blast with this one, getting to create cool stuff from spinning knives to lost cities strewn with skeletons. Tsui absolutely gets a kick out of throwing stuff at the audience, whether it be arrows, swords, knives, or chains. Chains play a part in one of the movie's most memorable action scenes, where Jet Li and Chen Kun hang on to opposite ends and go at after a tornado throws them into the air (after Zhao apparently rides into the tornado because he knows the ensuing fight will be awesome).

A lot of the action is built more around effects than athleticism, although most of the main cast and their featured opponents come across as quite capable when the time comes to trade blows. Li and Zhou are both kind of dour in their individual scenes, but have a nice chemistry when playing against each other. Chen Kun is a kick in his dual roles, with Huatian maybe peaking early on but Wind Blade picking up the slack as the timid-seeming fellow who relishes impersonating the arrogant eunuch. Kwai Lunmei goes to town as the most unrestrained of the warrior women, taking the same sort of gleeful delight in chaos normally reserved for villains.

Sure, "Flying Swords" is kind of overstuffed and there are moments when the visual effects drop a bit below Hollywood standards (and a swordfight-light section of the movie that correlates pretty well with Jet Li being off-screen). But give Tsui Hark this - he can put on a show, and given the biggest canvas he's ever had, he delivers one heck of an extravaganza.

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originally posted: 09/01/12 15:35:50
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  31-Aug-2012 (R)



Directed by
  Tsui Hark

Written by
  Tsui Hark

  Jet Li
  Xun Zhou
  Kun Chen
  Lunmei Kwai
  Yuchun Li
  Mavis Fan
  Siu-Wong Fan
  Gordon Liu

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