Time Raiders

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/22/16 12:31:34

"Keep searching for Chinese treasure."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Treasure-hunting stories are currently pretty big in China, and though it's tempting to see something about a nation with a very specific present and targeted future reconciling with a long, very different past, we don't do that with Indiana Jones. Those movies are just extremely well-built adventures. "Time Raiders" isn't quite so well-built - it's a jumble of things found in cliffhanging adventure stories that takes their awesomeness for granted rather than building something greater than the sun of their individual joys - but when you're in the middle of a tomb raider craze, this can scratch the itch.

Of course, there are tomb raiders and there are tomb raiders. The first one we see is Hendrix (Vanni Corbellini), a Westerner terrorizing mystics near the Tibet/Nepal border to find the lady of "24 Divine Pieces" that will serve as a map to a Chinese secret of immortality, although the monks are saved by Zhang Qiling (Jing Boran), one of their number with preternatural martial-arts skills. Fifty years later, though, there's Wu Xie (Lu Han), a young man from a family that has been robbing graves for centuries, though they imagine a more legitimate future for him. Which means, of course, that he will be the one to discover the secret passage in The Widow's Tomb, leading to a clockwork key that seems far too sophisticated for the Warring Kingdoms era it dates from (though it seems to be counting down to something just a week away), and which leads his uncle Wu Sanxing (Wang Jingchun) to Kunlun Qiala to unearth the legendary tomb of the Snake Empress (Mallika Sherawai) and King Xiang (Sammy Hung). His crew includes someone who is at least a dead ringer for Qiling, but an ageless martial artist may be just what the Wu family needs when a team of well-armed mercenaries financed by Hendrix and led by Captain Ning A (Ma Sichun) arrives on the scene.

Lovers of swashbuckling pulp adventures will likely have a big grin on their faces through at least the first half of Time Raiders, because it has a bit of everything: A young hero whose family wants something better for him than the family's traditional business, even if the centuries mean it's in his blood; a mysterious partner who is silent about his past; an obsessed villain who has devoted a lifetime to his quest; mysterious artifacts hidden in plain sight; a mercenary who is as capable as she is attractive; relics which seem impossibly advanced for their provenance; an impossibly large underground complex. The jaded may yawn at this, reciting dozens of pulps and serials made from the same ingredients, but director Daniel Lee and writer "Uncle Three" roll with this - seem through the eyes of Wu Xie, it is sort of familiar despite his family's attempts to direct his talents elsewhere, but when he encounters these things in real life, there's some awe to be found in discovering a world that is grand, fantastic, and dangerous beyond his own experience.

And then things go downright insane.

How insane is kind of amazing, really. Those who watched Mojin, the last big Chinese treasure-hunting film to make it to the United States in general release, likely recall the screenwriting gymnastics that one preformed to make it clear to the censor board that nothing was actually happening; in mainland Chinese films, that sort of thing is almost entirely reserved for adventures safely in the distant past and based upon a well-known legend like Journey to the West that can't be mistaken for anything but mythology. As this goes on, though, it's interesting to note that there's not a great deal of reflexive skepticism toward Hendrix's dreams of immortality or the more far-out legends of the Snake Empress, and when the crazy giant insects show up, all bets may really be off. The story goes way past over-the-top, and while some of what Three and Lee toss at the audience could play as the Chinese equivalent of Anglian and is lost technology or ancient astronauts, they don't exactly go out of their way to make it clearly that, either. The movie goes from comfortable adventure to mad fantasy without looking back.

It can't quite afford that ambition, unfortunately. Part of it is just the typical logistics that almost never make sense, with the gigantic lost city pushing some ahead through dangerous traps but not so much that others can't intercept them; it at least suggests a way in which the others might have a map (it is worth a thought how much this sort of movie relies on things that are the work of one man's lifetime being quite easy for another in order to reduce the distance between them). The attempts at grandeur stretch the visual effects budget to the breaking point, though; while it's not uncommon to watch a Chinese movie and note that the effects are ninety percent as effective as their American counterparts on a fraction of the budget, this isn't one of those cases. Just as the film needs to sell something more fantastic, it's hobbled by weak creature effects and an impressively complicated central mechanism that looks too perfectly detailed and well and evenly lit for its environment, no match for the worn, shadowy sets seen just earlier. It looks cheap and unlikely just when it needs to be most convincing.

I am not sure whether this is an adaptation or meant to be the start of a franchise - writer "Uncle Three" is apparently famous enough to merit a cameo as a man chronicling Wu Xie's story - and if so, it could perhaps use something of a stronger cast. Jing Boran plays the stoic, powerful fighter well enough, both in terms of physical action and finding young Wu something of a nuisance; he could stand having the film centered upon him. Similarly, Ma Sichun gives Ning an air of competence and hints that her backstory is interesting. Han Lu, on the other hand, often seems too cheery and fresh-faced as Wu Xie; while part of the issue is a screenplay that makes him good at everything without the feeling that any of it is hard-earned expertise; his upbeat and level performance drains much of the tension and he looks kind of ridiculous as the bearded, supposedly older and wiser Wu relating his story to Uncle Three.

Maybe that's why, at least for us in Boston, "Time Raiders" got a very small release compared to other recent Chinese hits; unlike a lot of other recent polished imports, its shortcomings may outweigh its charms even for those who know the stars and dig its particularly bizarre brand of pulp fiction.

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