The plot is typical, convoluted fantasy stuff, no doubt compounded by the fact that, like the Shaw swordplay films of the 70's based on popular adventure novels, volume upon volume and years worth of story was crammed into a films running time. One assumes the producers were courting an audience already familiar with the material, dropping in characters and asides whose relevance is lost to those who are unfamiliar.
Its all in a name as Lord Conqueror (Sonny Chiba) likes to conquer stuff and is told he'll have the run of the martial world by a seer named Mud Buddha. He is teasingly given a puzzle box with the info on his ultimate destiny and told he needs to find two disciples named Wind (Ekin Cheng) and Cloud (Aaron Kwok) in order to begin his rule. After offing their swordsmen fathers, Cloud's on purpose looking for his destined disciple, Wind's by serendipity, Lord Conqueror raises them into powerful warriors and his right hand men.
The two fall in love with Conqueror's daughter, Charity (Kristy Yang), and their dueling affections lead to the first rift with Conqueror when she is betrothed to Wind while she's previously been having an affair on the sly with Cloud. This all comes to a head right after Conqueror gives the two assignments that assure his grasp over the martial world- Wind finding the long in hiding Mud Buddha so he can unlock the prophecy puzzle box and Cloud pillaging the Unchallenged Sword from Conqueror's rivals in Unchallenged City. Of course, by the end, the two adopted brothers get over their rivalry and uncover the secret of their true fathers deaths and join forces to take down their villainous, power mad second father.
This is the kind of comic book film where the plotting is conversely easy to follow yet very confusing. That is, the major mechanics are laid out in predictable fashion but there are little added details that make things confusing. Like, in order to find Mud Buddha, they must find the Fire Monkey, which Mud Buddha uses to cure the poison boils he's afflicted with from being a psychic, and the monkey is protected by a Shaolin Monk, who eventually intervenes on behalf of those wronged at Unchallenged City. The info weaves together but it doesn't feel streamlined because of a huge cast of secondary characters all relating in little ways. Its the kind of film that throws in a whole rivalry between Conqueror and a master called the Sword Saint, a fact that is almost forgotten, unmentioned for a long stretch, yet still an important tag onto the main plot and the films conclusion.
As far as the acting goes, the roles require less in terms of emotion than they do posturing. Yang is especially bland as this supposed object of brother separating desire. Cheng has the vanilla goodie goodie part while Kwok has the more meatier sullen bad boy role. Cheng smiles and tosses his windswept hair. Kwok glowers. He glowers shirtless under a waterfall. He glowers in a tight mesh tank top while stomping through the fortress. He glowers when he fights. He glowers when he makes love. Though not seen on film, I'm willing to bet he glowers while brushing his teeth. Sonny Chiba makes the best impression despite the fact that he had a language barrier. Being the only Japanese on a Chinese film, all of his vocals were dubbed, leading to a similar situation Shek Kin had on Enter the Dragon where the actor and his dubber deserve equal praise.
The action is a combo of wirework, some rather basic (even for '97) CGI, and lots of flash!-bam! editing. Suffice to say, it is choreographed and shot in a way to work around actors with basic stunt knowledge by either replacing them with stunt performers or composing around them. Lau's cameramen and editors probably poured as much/more sweat than the people onscreen. I'm not opposed to such things, but when the style is the substance of a film, Storm Riders is pretty messy to the point that it removes most of the fun one can have with its fantasy plot and characters. The action, often undercut with repetitive baroque scoring, features some fairly bland swordwork, colorful CGI trails accentuating every punch, kick, spin, and leap, and lots of posing cool.
The DVD: Discotek.
Both the Directors Cut and the International Cut are included in this two disc set. Uncut the film runs 128 minutes which is absolutely savaged and confusingly hacked into a mere 90 minutes in the international cut. While the story is a tad messy and bloated at over two hours, the hour and a half presentation renders it almost incoherent and utterly nonsensical.
This is an instance where I hoped that a new edition would be revelatory as the old HK dvd I have is a digital mess. Both films are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen, and, while the prints are tight, neither one looks particularly amazing. It is really a matter of my thinking, "Maybe a better transfer will make it look less cheap?" and here we have a better transfer and the film still looks cheap. The base elements are okay, decent color and sharpness, middling contrast levels, but the source still has a terribly dated look and distracting techniques, like the old Ronny Yu blurry-cam for flashbacks. On the technical side, I was a tad disappointed to find that the longer cut disc had a few instances of slight blurring/coming that the shorter cut did not have.
The international cut has a sole Dolby Digital 2.0 English dub while the the directors cut features Cantonese language Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS Surround tracks with optional English subtitles. It almost goes without saying that the audio presentation on the directors cut clearly outranks the international cut. It is a good mix, nice response with the boomy scoring and sword-clanging fx work. I wont really slag on the dub too much, the corny voice acting compliments a cheesy film. On the subtitle front I was disappointed to find a couple of minor errors and a lack of onscreen text (signs, notes, and the like) translation.
Spread across the two discs you will find Cast & Crew Bios, Production Stills, Trailers, Character Profiles, an Interview with director Andrew Lau (12:18), and two featurettes, FX (20:15) and Making Of (22:34).
A nice round of extras cobbled from other releases. The featurettes offer the usual happily spun studio mandated anecdotes from the cast and crew along with plenty of behind the scenes glimpses. For me, the most interesting extra was the one on one interview with Lau where he goes into specific detail about what it was like whelming the project and hurdling the fx and stunt work.
I am a big fan of HK swordplay films, from austere King Hu classics like Come Drink With Me, to colorful Chu Yuan clusterfucks like The Magic Blade, to the new wave wizardry of Duel to the Death. Storm Riders is a film I more appreciate for his place in HK film history rather than its core entertainment elements. A film like, say, Zu Warriors on Magic Mountain, has similarly dated fx and technical work but it also has an energy that makes it stand the test of time. Storm Riders just slips on that level, and if if you pulled a Lucas and redid the fx, the other key elements would still be detrimentally fuzzy. A relevant step towards Hong Kong embracing modern, big budget, film making tools, sure, but also not a great fantasy movie. The DVD presentation is fine, a certain improvement over other editions out there, though I'm not sure the truncated disc will get many spins. I will have to go with a rental.