Saving General Yang is a distinctly uneven, but mostly successful movie, stumbling slowly toward sure footing in the story. Directed by Ronny Yu (Fearless, Freddy vs. Jason), the film is packed with dazzling action sequences that impress with both fluidity and impact, but Yu's grasp of the film's ensemble cast of characters is not as firm, with at least 40 minutes of build-up passing before the movie manages to develop some dramatic thrust.
A brief amount of research suggests that the story of the Yangs is well-known in China, so maybe the fact that Yang's sons are mostly referred to by number ("Fifth Son") rather than names is all the information Yu felt the audience needed, but it only accentuates how anonymous most of them are, with a couple differentiated by story details, but not personality. Character-wise, the film picks up after General Yang is stranded, which gives the Yu a chance to catch his breath -- most of the scenes that come beforehand feel rushed or truncated, as if Yu is hurrying to get to the core of the story. The sons are generic, but Cheng imbues Yang with an impressive amount of humanity in a short period of time. Scenes of Yang's nobility and selflessness are simple, but in one early scene, he creates a well of chemistry in just a few minutes with his wife (Fan Xu), who is rightfully concerned about the position his assignment puts him in. Later, his moments with some of his sons do the same, crafting a sense of family and familiarity that the film could use more of.
Another source of unevenness comes from the film's visuals, which are seriously hampered by budgetary constraints. Economically, it's understandable why the movie industry, even the majority of the films produced in the US, is no longer making grand period epic with lavish sets and costumes, but that doesn't excuse how ugly so many of Saving General Yang's obvious greenscreen vistas are. When the camera is on the ground in the middle of one of Yu's larger battle sequences, he does a good job at spreading out his extras to give the illusion of scope and scale, but any wide shot instantly ruins the illusion with poorly composited, glaringly artificial landscapes. The brief scene where Pan's son dies takes place on an inexplicably foggy rooftop, as if the effects budget simply ran out. Thankfully, the film mostly switches to practical locations in the second half, but for awhile, it's hard to distinguish Saving General Yang from a "digital backlot" movie like Sky Captain or Sin City.
Still, that action and what character beats work infuse the picture with a satisfying amount of excitement. Despite having at least seven (and usually more) characters to deal with, Yu and his editor Drew Thompson skillfully cut between brothers in battle, clearly illustrating their spatial relationship to bad guys, and capturing their fighting skills with clarity, but without sacrificing speed or intensity. Throughout the film, Yu paces himself between drama and action, wisely scaling forward or backward as necessary. The film's final fight sequence is far from unexpected, both in the context of the film, and as a standard climax of the action genre, but Yu's work throughout helps turn it into a surprisingly satisfying moment.
The Video and Audio
An original theatrical trailer for Saving General Yang is also included, and trailers for The Wrath of Vajra, On the Job, and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon play before the main menu. All of the video extras here are presented in HD.