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.
The Video and Audio
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.