When I first heard the buzz on Wilson Yip's Sha Po Lang/S.P.L./Killzone, 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 it, 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. gave Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen something substantial to do with their physical talents, but the film was a little too polished and serious to call it a sign of old school HK stunt action on a resurgence.
So, when Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen announced they'd be working together again on the comic book adaptation Dragon Tiger Gate, I was, once again, skeptical. Sorry, but 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 that the scribes that adapted the long-running comic.
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 The Dragon Tiger gate by Wong (Yuen Wah), while Dragon was raised by 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). Also, there are many 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.
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. It's a real shame since S.P.L. showed Donnie embracing some more submission-oriented marital choreography, no doubt inspired by the rise of mixed martial arts, actually making him be quite forward thinking and innovative as a fight choreographer. Now, with this film, he took a step back.
Wilson Yip directs with a overconscious camera, framing things far too wide and using 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 Storm Riders, but when it comes down to films relying on pure hand to hand combat action, reliance on heavy CGI just distracts and takes away from the visceral feel one wants from flying feet and pounding fists. I mean, 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. I guess the stylistics fall in line with being a comic book film, but there is still no reason you cannot make fantasy action with physical weight instead of the translucent strikes Dragon Tiger Gate offers.
The DVD: Tai Seng.
I previously reviewed the 2 disc HK Deltamac disc which appears to be the overall source for this import. For the feature, Tai Seng's edition is slightly compressed, by around 10%, in terms of both image and audio, due to the edition of an Eng dub audio track and a commentary track.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. If you like slick effect and CGI backdrops, it's a dazzler of a movie. You'll find all the hues of a candy store. Print is tight and clean with no grain, spot, dirt, etc issues. Decent contrast depth. I did a bunch of screengrabs to see how noticeable the compression was and it ended up being fairly negligible. Unless you really zoomed in on the edge details, it wasn't that noticeable.
Sound: DTS Cantonese and 5.1 Cantonese, Mandarin, and English language track options. Optional English and Chinese (simplified and traditional) subtitles. The action and scoring making excellent use of surround channels. Good response all around.
It seems that every-other time I slag on an English dub, some joker emails me and accuses me of being anti-dub. Couldn't be further from the truth. I just don't like bad, half-hearted dubs. I actually liked some of the dub performances on this disc, particularly Li Xiaron's Brit accented dubber. It was a bit off-putting to hear a different voice coming out of Donnie Yen. Shame he couldn't contribute to his own Eng dub.
Extras: On the feature disc, there is commentary by Tai Seng head honcho Frank Djeng, Atlas Comics editor Jeff Rogan, and fetishist/hyperbolic columnist Ric Meyers. I only listened to about twenty minutes of the commentary. As they fanboy waxed and discussed generalities about the film, they didn't engage me in the slightest.
A second disc is devoted to the following extras: Photo gallery. --- Trailers/Teaser/TV Spots. --- 8 mini-featurettes ranging from 2 ½ to 4 minutes in length. --- Making of featurette (18:28). --- Interviews: Donnie Yen (24:31, Nicholas Tse (13:43), Shawn Yue (13:15), and Wilson Yip (18:01). --- Deleted Scenes (7:40). --- Cannes and Premiere footage (5:48).
The second disc is identical to the Deltamc disc execept for one improved area- the deleted scenes are English subbed on the Tai Seng.
Conclusion: Dragon Tiger Gate is a preening, posturing, over-stylized fantasy martial arts film. The story and performances are all surface and the action, while showy, lacks punch. Tai Seng's DVD is a decent affair, adding a Eng dub track for those inclined and port of the nice round of extras from
the HK SE. Transferwise, it is a purchase-worthy edition but the film itself is strictly rental material, so I suggest a rent first, possible purchase second.