A little magic comes to 1920s Beijing in the person of Chang Hsien, an illusionist who has traveled the world and sacrificed his heart in the process. Chang is The Great Magician, played with old-style Hollywood charm by Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love, Lust, Caution). Director Derek Yee (Shinjuku Incident) is purposely paying homage to the golden age of moviemaking, going so far as to include a Japanese film crew looking to bring the movies to China as part of his story. The period piece depicts a time when people believed in the possibility of magic, including the magic of celluloid, as going to the movies was not yet common enough that the average person had assimilated the illusions of cinema. For all anyone knew, the action depicted on screen is going to spill over into the theater.
Yee hopes to inspire the same sense of wonder in modern audiences, but The Great Magician doesn't quite do the trick. The plot involves a power struggle amongst small-time warlords who look to fill a power vacuum and take over China. Bully Lei (Lau Ching-Wan, My Left Eye Sees Ghosts) is one such warlord, though his passions extend beyond the proposed battlefield to creature comforts and romance. Though he has six wives already, he hopes to take a seventh. Only Yin (Zhou Xun, Cloud Atlas) refuses to marry unless Bully finds her missing father (Paul Chun, A Simple Life).
As fate would have it, dear ol' daddy was himself a magician, and he trained Chang. He was also a teacher to Bully's right-hand man, Butler Liu (Wu Gang), who is secretly plotting his own takeover behind his boss' back. He is the one who has imprisoned the old magic man in hopes of forcing him to hand over the Seven Wonders Scroll. The document has a mind control spell that would all but clear the way to victory. Chang has returned with other plans in mind, however. He is going to take down Bully, free his mentor, and take back his lover. He and Yin had been engaged before Chang left for America.
What starts as basically a serious action picture--albeit one with a stage magician and curses and the like--quickly devolves into a fluffy romantic comedy. The action grows more cartoony, and Yee's use of digital effects to create Chang's illusions means there is little hope that the audience will ever become invested in the magic enough to suspend disbelief. Leung is suave, and he and Ching-Wan develop a strong rapport, creating a dynamic that one could compare to Bogart and Rains in Casablanca, but their likability fails to make up for a clumsy plot and all the wayward digressions that push what should be a rather fleet exercise past the two-hour mark. The Great Magician is entertaining, but not enough to cover how silly it all is. Derek Yee even fails to pull off the appropriate rousing finish, preferring slapstick to genuine thrills. Hell, we don't even get one big magical con to bring the house down. The Seven Wonders aren't wonderful at all.
Nope. The Great Magician closes with a fizzled stage show and a predictable reveal. Classic entertainment like the kind Yee aspires to rouses the senses; The Great Magician dulls them instead.
An English-dubbed version is also available in both 5.1 and 2.0, just in case you have any desire to hear the Chinese actors speak with British accents.
The optional English subtitles are okay. Barring the consistent appearance of typos, the writing is fairly decent and the flow easy to follow.