At a fancy dinner party, the villainous Japanese General Zhao (Waise Lee) confronts a Chinese photographer, jokingly asking if he's about to assassinate the visiting prince. They both laugh, but at the end of it, Zhao has a gun pointed at the photographer's stomach. Fortunately for the reporter, two other people pop up and point guns at the general. In an extended flashback, eventually, the pieces are filled in: one of the two response guns is held by Gao (Yi Zhang), a Chinese freedom fighter who covertly made his way into a ruthless bandit gang and managed to corral them into fighting against Japanese military invaders. The other gun is held by Jen (Xinyi Zhang), sister of notorious criminal and head bandit Fang (Xiaoming Huang), the one posing as a reporter. The three of them have plans to disrupt a peace accord between the Chinese and Japanese, and kidnapping the prince is part of the plan.
Eastern Bandits is a half-successful genre pastiche, blending a political thriller with a heist movie and mashing it up with a western, with a heavy dash of comedy and romance for good measure. The old adage about doing less things well than a bunch of things so-so holds true here, especially as the film moves into the second half, but there's a nice spirit, at the very least, to the blend of flavors on display, which will likely ease viewers over the numerous rough patches that mar the overall experience. The film suffers from bloat, both in characters and running time, and never really quite settles on being anything in particular, which is only more of a shame considering it does some things really well.
Direction of the action scenes is the most erratic. The first sequence, a prison break involving precision timing, is reasonably thrilling, and the second action scene turns into a ridiculous comic Mexican standoff that is repetitive, but funny. Later action scenes, on the other hand, are confusing and unengaging: a sequence in which the bandits' hideout is rushed is confusing in that it suddenly seems as if there are an additional five or six expendable bandits, yet among seven or eight deaths there are only one or two notable characters that are killed, leaving the viewer to wonder where the others came from. The final battle sequence, taking place shortly after that dazzling opener (once the flashback has ended) is the most uninteresting, an over-long shootout that focuses more on the action than the characters involved in it.
Melodrama is the movie's weak spot. There are a number of unrequited or unfulfilled romantic entanglements going on throughout the film, and all of them are a drag. Some of them are less romantic than simply dramatic, but they too are a burden, leading to far too many moments when one character bravely stays behind while another howls at them to escape with them, or scenes of characters offering a touch of sentiment as they go out. In most of the cases, these interpersonal relationships are also almost all we know about the characters and their personalities; too many of the film's ensemble cast is underdeveloped or shuffled off to the side. The introduction of a new character near the end of the film, the brother of the emperor, is striking in how much more of an impact he makes in his appearance and performance choices than so many of the "core" cast.
Still, there's something to be said for Yi Zhang and Xinyi Zhang, who are interesting in spite of the messy story and fluctuations in tone that mute the rest of Eastern Bandits' qualities. Their combined star power may not be enough to merit a recommendation, but both of them project far more nuance and intrigue than the rest of their fellow castmates combined. Before the jailbreak sequence begins, Jen is trying to negotiate Fang's release the easy way, but the prison warden refuses. There's an electricity in her eyes and the curl of her mouth that makes the rest of the sequence slightly more exciting. The same goes for Gao explaining his elaborate methods of joining the gang, which has a loose, comic energy to it. As his stature in the bandits grows, he exudes a certain cool or calmness that makes him oddly magnetic, like a born leader. The final 20 minutes really kill any chance of Bandits leaving its mark as a film, but perhaps a better director will find a more interesting story for two thirds of the core cast to reunite in.
Eastern Bandits arrives with sepia-toned Photoshop art that makes the film maybe a little more western-ish than it actually is, with horses and ten-gallon hats, although that's not really a problem considering the film's blend of styles is one of its more pleasing aspects. The disc comes in a Vortex Blu-Ray case, and there is a sheet advertising other Well Go USA releases inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Whoa. I don't know what went wrong with this 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer, but something definitely went wrong, probably in the post-production process. Contrast is entirely out of whack. Within a single frame, parts of the image will exhibit significantly weak black levels, flattening the picture, while another portion will have such inky blacks they will crush. Digital noise rears its head in some scenes (such as the beginning) but not in others. Artifacting is common in dark areas of the screen, and many of the cave scenes are not just crushed but also appear distorted, turning an ugly yellow-green color rather than true black. I can honestly say I haven't seen a funkier, more digitally mishandled transfer in quite awhile -- I am sure, at some point, some setting or knob was changed incorrectly, and the results are evident.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is better than the picture, if still a bit on the anemic side. For a film so full of gun battles, explosions, rumbling tanks, and galloping horses, the mix only achieved adequate levels of immersion and directionality rather than blowing me away. Dialogue and music sound fine, but the mix as a whole is missing that special something, as if it too were slightly misadjusted. A 2.0 Dolby Digital track (also in Mandarin) and English subtitles are also provided.
Only an original theatrical trailer.
For the first half, I expected Eastern Bandits to be a strong recommendation, despite some reservations. As it shifted into the second half, however, my enthusiasm started to leak out like a deflating balloon, and it was already used up before the film's bizarre ending, which seems ominous and celebratory at the same time. Coupled with a mishandled Blu-Ray presentation, skip it.
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