When I first heard the buzz on Wilson Yip's Sha Po Lang/S.P.L. (2005), advance word was that the film was a welcome return to the glory days of HK's no nonsense action. I was skeptical. While I ended up enjoying S.P.L., the resulting film was a bit of a mixed bag, a typical cops versus crooks crime drama with some decent action. After some drought years, S.P.L. at least gave Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen something substantial to do with their physical talents, but still the film was a little too polished and serious to call it a sign of old school HK stunt action on the resurgence.
So, when Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen announced they'd be working together again on a comic book adaptation Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) I was still very skeptical. Years of flat action films and the death of actual talented stunt performers makes an old school fan a little more guarded when it comes to modern HK action films. Could the duo maintain the momentum of S.P.L., or would they fall into the same surface style over physical sweat that the HK commercial genre films of the past ten years have perpetuated? Turns out, sadly, it is the latter, but what else so you expect from a comic book adaptation?
I could actually spend more time discussing the hair of the actors in this film than the actual plot. Seriously, the wig makers and hairstylists obviously spent more time fretting over the details on the cast's hair follicles than the writers in charge of adapting the script. Dragon (Donnie Yen- Hero, In the Line of Duty 4, Iron Monkey) and
Tiger (Nicolas Tse- Gen X Cops, My Schoolmate the Barbarian, New Police Story) are two brothers separated when they were children. Tiger was raised at the virtuous martial arts academy Dragon Tiger Gate by stern goody-goody Wong (Yuen Wah), while Dragon was raised by not-so-bad crime lord Kwun (Chen Kuan Tai)- two awesome martial fathers if you can get em'.
Anyway, the two long lost brothers cross paths when Tiger disrupts a meeting between Kwun and mystery bad guy Shibumi- cue teahouse fight. Tiger makes off with some kind of plaque important in underworld rituals which sparks all manner of fisticuffs.
Also, a third guy shows up, Turbo (Shawn Yue- Initial D, Infernal Affairs) who aside from sporting some kind of mid-70's Carol Channing wig, fancies himself a badass with nunchuks, and really wants to be a pupil at Dragon Tiger Gate. There's also obligatory, and stop the movie dead in its tracks boring, love interests: Tiger with Kwun's daughter (Li Xiason) and Dragon with Shibumi's daughter( Li Xiaron). Not to mention a SHITLOAD of flashbacks from when Tiger and Dragon were kiddies (but still with carefully coifed locks with bangs falling over one eye, of course). Anyway, Dragon encourages Kwun to retire, makes steps to reunite with his brother, rebuffs Shibumi's daughter, and Shibumi basically sends out hordes of henchmen to kick everyones ass.
I actually lost focus during Dragon Tiger Gate so I missed specifics of why the main baddie Shibumi decides to rear his ugly masked head to whip everybodies ass. I didn't bother rewinding the movie because honestly, it doesn't really matter in this kind of film. You know its something simple like, ‟Well, he is evil ya' know. That's what evil comic book bad guys do.‟ The fact that the films dialogues scenes and exposition were so leaden and boring that I blanked for five minutes should tell you a lot.
So, that's enough about the story. Its nothing much more than an excuse for the three main leads to show off their haircuts and pose dramatically while some kind of wind from nowhere wafts through the air to show off their coiffure.
As an action choreographer Donnie Yen has always been a bit of a high energy, flashy move, speed over elegance composer. You would imagine that would be perfectly suited for a comic book-inspired movie like this. Unfortunately, I didn't think there was much to praise in Dragon Tiger Gate's action. Not that is is Donnie's fault. Wilson Yip directs with a overconscious camera, framing things far too wide, using showy camera moves that distract from the actual performance. The camera is often so far away from the actors, its hard to get a read on their facial expression when acting, and actionwise the frame seems more concerned with the set backdrops and CGI backgrounds than the actual physical moves. I think excessive computer trickery services fantasy action films like Zu Warriors or Strom Riders, but when it comes down to films relying on pure hand to hand combat like Dragon Tiger Gate, reliance on heavy CGI just distracts and takes away from the visceral feel one wants from flying feet and pounding fists.
Donnie Yen is a talented martial artist, but you'd never know it from Dragon Tiger Gate because he just looks like any other HK pretty boy posturing as he flies through some fake landscape while flailing his fists and feet. For me, the fact that he is a 40 year old guy playing 20 and, unlike his young co-stars, all too aware of the days when his talents would have been better showcased, is kinda' sad. Oh well, times change. This is the kind of modern action film where aesthetic rules over anything else. Its more about the performers looking pretty and being carefully dressed like Japanese pop stars in a soda ad. Hey, some people like that sort of thing, I understand. Me, I'd prefer, say, Yuen Biao in jam pants and a red Member's only jacket fighting in some dingy warehouse over Donnie Yen in a tight blue t-shirt and salon locks fighting on some digital background more suited for your Playstation 2 videogame cut scene.
The DVD: Deltamac, HK, ALL Region DVD.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Clean, tight print. Very vivid with excellent details, and considering this film is more about the visuals than the story, quite a good thing. Colors are nice and rich. Sharpness is well-defined. I thought the contrast balance could have used some deeper blacks in a few spots. Compression appears pretty good, no severe instances of aliasing or other transfer defects.
Sound: Now here is the main reason the flick had to get a two- disc. The audio boasts the following tracks: Cantonese and Mandarin DTS-ES 6.1, DD-EX 5.1, and Dolby 2.0. Optional English and Chinese subtitles. A real ear-grabber, thats for sure. The action and score really pops, making excellent use of surround channels. Good response all around. The subs are fine, though its hard to tell if its just the lame script or a less than engaging translation.
Extras: This is a Two Disc set. The extras on the second disc are: Trailer, Teaser, and TV Spots. -- Photo Gallery. -- Featurettes: Four covering the main sets, a Pre-production short, and three Shooting Dairies. Each one of these segment lasts around 3 mins. The Main featurette is a ‟Making Of‟ doc that lasts 18 minutes. -- Interviews: Donnie Yen (24:30), Nicolas Tse (13:42), Shawn Yue (13:13), Dong Jie (7:30), Li Xiaron (7:15), and Wilson Yip (18:00). -- Deleted Scenes (7:15). -- Cannes (2:00) and HK Gala (3:45) premiere footage.
A good set of extras. Thankfully, very English friendly, the only extra without English subs are the deleted scenes, but all the rest of the extras have English subs.
There are three editions of the film from Deltamac: A Standard Two Disc, a Two Disc with stickers (what I got for review), and a Limited Edition Box Set with Figurines.
Conclusion: If you are curious about this preening, posturing, over-stylized fantasy martial arts film, you certainly get your money's worth out of the DVD which boasts a nice transfer and a good disc of extras. I just didn't like it, and I'm about as dedicated an HK/martial film geek you are likely to find. While the DVD certainly meets all the requirements of a purchase, the film itself is strictly rental material.