I get where Wu Dang wants to go. I really do. The film's ambition exists somewhere between a traditional tournament-style romp, an Indiana Jones-like adventure, and whimsical low-fantasy that's more focused on the impossible instead of the probable. Bolstered by a nostalgic glimpse at '70s and '80s martial arts films that's been spruced up by modernized polish by director Patrick Leung, this could've easily become a bracing rush of visuals and combat with an adoring sensibility towards the Shaw Brothers films of yesteryear. That, however, isn't what materializes on-screen in this utter mess of a throwback: the production elements reveal the creative artistic perspective it's after and the choreography occasionally invigorates the pace, but it's all for naught when the script is this empty-skulled and bereft of a convincing through-line.
Yet, Wu Dang sounds pretty appealing on paper, full of adventure and high-stakes through Wu Dang Mountain in fictionalized '20s China. Up in the range's peaks, a tournament has been orchestrated to promote Taoist martial arts among children, bringing together combatants from all across China for a celebratory exhibition. Conveniently, a history professor (Vincent Zhao) discovers a map of sorts to several valuable relics among the mountain's peaks, so he brings his ailing martial-arts protégé daughter to partake in the events while he searches. He's not without competition, though: a rival female warrior (Yang Mi), who had to fight tooth-and-nail through unsavory means to get to Wu Dang Mountain, also seeks one of the relics for family purposes. As they weave through the mountain's secrets in search of the treasure, they discover more about the mystical nature of the beliefs that the Taoists monks believe -- and how the treasure sought carries a deeper purpose.
The misty mountains endow Wu Dang with a sumptuous environment that's ideal for mythical cinematography and engaging production design, an area where the film legitimately excels.
Weatherworn structures wedged into the forested mountainside enhance that vast-removed essence of the Taoist monastery, where rich blue-green stone and thriving vegetation create a sense of age and protected seclusion to the adventure that transpires. Tattered garments for the meager monks and bold, rich costumes for the heroes and villains often engage the eyes as they weave through the monastery and navigate the mountain's roads ad caverns by night (there's an absolutely stunning shot of Mini Yang's face covered by a silken cowl). These are the components for a more ample, polished legend than the one Patrick Leung delivers, rendering the shots as hollow images that make one yearn for more substance.
Nay, the problems here rest solely in the script. Wu Dang's writing alternates between lethargic blandness and downright illogical nonsense for its serialized relic-hunting exploration, making this a prime example where even full-bodied style can't avoid slumping into subpar territory. It leaves one scratching their head over dead-but-not-quite-dead physical conditions and martial artists who can stop themelves from soaring off a mountain ridge by grabbing a stone ledge with the bottoms of their feet, not to mention an unaware Taoist monk whose fighting ability exists in his sleeping state. Those fantastical elements could be tolerable if the situations and dialogue moving them along weren't so wooden and uninterestingly forced, to an extent that makes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look masterful in contrast. This, naturally, leaves most character-building scenes -- especially one involving a quasi-romantic angle between an older man and a teenage girl -- as exceedingly awkward and undernourished.
Wu Dang is left only with the martial-arts action and adventuresome sleuthing as its savings graces, and Corey Yuen's action direction doesn't pick up the slack when the story flounders. Sure, there are a few engaging hand-to-hand battles against the backdrop of the misty mountains, exhibiting a few styles and strength differences that'll spark some interest in the genre's fans, on top of some polished wire-fu usage that add an element of grandness to the action. Yet, they're simply too few and far between and languidly paced, broken up by inane plotting that moves towards a mundane ending to it all, predictably involving the tournament's organizer and the relics which the heroes have been hunting from the beginning. The visual tempo so desperately instills a desire for Patrick Leung's film to elevate from its follies, to deliver consistent pulse-pounding action, and for the dialogue's rhythm to not come across as this stilted while waiting for those patches of action to emerge. Alas, that's not where Wu Dang went.
Video and Audio:
You have no idea how badly I wish Wu Dang were a better martial-arts adventure, because Well Go USA's Blu-ray is pretty darn phenomenal. The 2.35:1-framed 1080p treatment borders on immaculate, where the misty, stony locations provide beautifully complex high-definition eye candy and the range of motion during the fight choreography does an impeccable job of preserving the visceral body language. This goes for both daylight and nighttime sequence; light-drenched scenes reveal exquisite, well-etched details in the garments and facial close-ups, while darker scenes present wonderfully-stable black levels and nimble color-aware contrast. The authenticity in the photography's appearance is often quite stunning when focused on the characters and their garments, where depth-of-field and dimensionality in facial features feel nearly as real as one could expect. There's plenty of color -- sky blues, robust greens, slate grays -- and a wealth of expansiveness, and it's all rather striking.
With the exception of one or two instances where a punch should've felt stronger and the dialogue a bit richer, the 5-channel Master Audio track matches the clarity and sumptuousness of the visual transfer. Largely, the elegant fight sequences exhibit punches, kicks, falls, and rustling fabric that stay centered in a nimble range of bass and treble, telegraphing restrained but attention-grabbing clarity. Subtle effects, like the flapping of ducks wings, a young girl's sniffling, and even the flickering of "magic", also nail down the same elegant clarity. And it also uses the full breadth of the surround stage at frequent points, where some briskness of action sequences allows rushing effects and other atmospheric flourishes to travel to the back channels. It's clear, rich, dynamic, and incredibly satisfying. The English subtitles are also very articulate, with next to no discernible errors to be found.
Typical fare for a Well Go USA release, Wu Dan arrives with a high-definition Trailer (1:33, HD) that shows off tons of hustle-'n-bustle and a fairly lengthy stretch of Behind the Scenes (31:12, SD) footage that features interviews and scene-anatomy glimpses. Director Patrick Leung and the producers/actors/crew offer their input, discussing the movie's elaborate action style and how Corey Yuen's perspective impacted it, the characters and the actors portraying them, and the complexity of film shoots. Don't let the beginning of the piece fool you, though: the behind-the-scenes material gets pretty engaging, while emotional post-modern rock music drives it along.
"Picturesque" isn't the first word that a classic kung-fu throwback adventure wants as its primary descriptor, but that's the best thing I can say about Wu Dang. The photography, coupled with intricate and well-considered production design, make for a compelling visual experience; the rest of it, however, slumps into an infuriating mix of bad dialogue, mundane plotting, and sparse, mildly-engaging fight sequences. At least Well Go USA's Blu-ray packs a wallop, both with incredible visuals and assertive aural panache, and that'll satisfy those starved for something new in the mystical Asian martial-arts / adventure spectrum. Most, however, will be better off if they Skip It altogether.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site