Wait a minute, you’re telling me that a Tsui Hark/Jet Li movie is showing in 3D Imax in my town? Shit, that’s something I gotta experience, something I gotta support. I managed to squeak it in on the next-to-last day of the 2 week limited engagement, so I’m sorry that I failed to give some of you a heads up.
Apparently this is a remake of DRAGON GATE INN (1966) which was already remade as NEW DRAGON GATE INN/DRAGON INN (1992), neither of which I’ve seen. It is not a remake of DRAGON TIGER GATE, which I have seen. Donnie Yen was offered the lead in this, but he turned it down because he was already in the ’92 version and thought that would be weird to do another one. Or maybe he was confusing it with DRAGON TIGER GATE and didn’t want to revisit the goofy hair style he had in that.
So instead Li plays Zhou Huai’an, a legendary outlaw warrior who in the great opening scene attacks, taunts, duels and defeats the wicked leader of the East Bureau, a eunuch played by the great Gordon Liu. In the opening the score (which is great throughout) reminded me of a Shaw Brothers movie, and you see right away that this is an old school wuxia style with crazy sound effects and super powered fighters who can run up walls and float around like Peter Pan. The overall feel is traditional, but it also has all those busy digital establishing shots like we’ve seen in Hark’s DETECTIVE DEE, John Woo’s RED CLIFF, going back to Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR. And they have the old fashioned gravity defying fights achieved through wire removal, but with the computers adding weapons and atmospheric effects and shit.
Zhou wears dark clothes and a big hat that covers his face, is prone to leap up and pose on wooden beams and shit, and his legend precedes him. I thought of him as a wire-fu Zorro. In fact, he’s so mythologized that some lady is going around pretending to be him, getting away with it just because of the hat. The real Zhou and his two homies follow her around watching what she does, and even they call her a “he.” Zhou doesn’t want to interfere because he likes that she goes around rescuing people.
Also there’s this Eastern Bureau who never liked Gordon Liu anyway but after Zhou literally sends them his head in a box (okay, I guess Zorro wouldn’t have done that) they gotta go after him. Their leader Yu Huatian (Chen Kun) is one of these prissy, kind of effeminate out-of-touch-but-deadly leaders they always had in those empires according to these movies.
If I had seen either of the other versions I guess I would know they were headed toward the Dragon Inn, a withered desert outpost near a buried palace full of treasure that, legend has it, is uncovered in a sandstorm once every 60 years. And wait a minute, let me check the calendar here… yes, indeed we’re at the end of that 60 years. There are various parties hanging out at the inn waiting to try to hunt this treasure. The most notable one is the Tartar princess (Kwai Lun-mei) and her monster-toothed bodyguard (not sure who the actor is, but I like him). They look like brutes and are covered in face tattoos and the princess likes to laugh condescendingly at everybody and then speak in her native tongue so they don’t know what they’re being made fun of for.
I hardly ever get a chance to see this genre of movies on the big screen, but even at home with the power of pause and rewind I have to admit they’re harder for me to follow than most other types of movies. There are alot of characters to keep track of here and because of my cultural ignorance it’s hard to keep track of the names. You saw my chart I had to make to try to follow RED CLIFF. But of course I loved that movie and I’m willing both to work to understand what’s going on and to keep enjoying it when I can’t.
Unfortunately this had a much harder problem than usual – the subtitles combined with the Imax and the 3D were too much for my eyeballs. I’d never been in this particular Imax auditorium – it’s not the one where DARK KNIGHT RISES and shit play. The screen goes all the way down to the ground, but it’s gigantic Imax size, so your eyes have to scan down below to read the words and then up above to see the pictures. Worse, because it’s 3D you’re constantly re-focusing from words in the foreground to faces further in. It’s very similar to the visually-whiplash I got from the opening credits of PIRANHA 3D. It only took a few minutes before I literally had sore eyes. I quickly realized that in some scenes I was just gonna have to let the dialogue go and watch the imagery, otherwise what was the point of seeing it in 3D? So I definitely lost track of alot of what was going on and didn’t get as much out of it as I would’ve liked.
As a fan of 3D and not of dubbing foreign language films I always wondered if this would be a problem. At least in this execution of it, and for me, it’s a big problem. I wonder if maybe it would work better to put the subtitles inside the frame at the depth of the thing you’re supposed to focus on? That would be pretty bizarre but maybe it would be easier to watch.
On the other hand I remember that AVATAR had some subtitles in it and I don’t think they were a problem, so maybe there’s a better way to do it. Or maybe you gotta do it with movies that have less reliance on dialogue, more quiet moments. This one has a long section in the middle that’s just the people in the inn talking about shit, with some flashbacks. Where they came from, what they know about the treasure, what they think the words on the Dragon Gate mean. It’s alot to take in and doesn’t help the movie that Jet Li is not there.
Another note about the presentation: this was a real Imax screen and sound system that I think is normally used for real Imax, it this was digital projection. I gotta respect it because it made a limited release like this possible, I’m sure they didn’t strike up prints. But also the Imax people have got to notice that they gotta get better projectors than this to live up to their name. Most of it looks fine, but on a giant screen like that certain shots (like all the cool far away shots with little people walking around) looked really pixelated like a low res computer file.
But the 3D is spectacular and this is why despite everything I’m really glad I went to see it this way. It was shot 3D, not faked in a computer (but with tons of digital additions to the live action – swarms of birds, sandstorms, every imaginable projectile). Apparently they got a guy named Chuck Comisky, who was the visual effects supervisor for AVATAR, to oversee the 3D. Hark’s use of the medium reminds me of my favorite 3D ever, the Robert Zemeckis Creep-o-vision trilogy. There are many shots floating over and through interesting buildings and ships and landscapes. There’s no shyness about doing the main thing 3D should be used for, that people always incorrectly say it should not be used for, which is to have 3D shit flying out of the screen. It’s not a constant barrage, but there’s a respectable amount of 3D throwing knives, arrows, punches, flying wooden beams, flying Jet Lis. My favorite is when he’s whipping and swinging around a huge chain. You’re telling me, fellow writers on the films of cinema, that you prefer a 3D movie where all objects remain peacefully in the distance to one where Jet Li swings a huge chain around? Sorry, you and 3D movies are not working out. 3D movies are gonna have to let you go.
You know what’s cool? Jet Li wearing a headband, and the wind is blowing, and the tail of the headband is blowing in front of him, reaching out of the screen toward us. Simple things like that can be beautiful.
The most important thing is that Hark knows to emphasize depth and layers in all of his shots. More often than not the foreground will have a barrel or a rock or a corner of a building or a wooden beam, or we’ll be looking through some trees or a bamboo grate or down a stairway at the people and there will be other things in the distance. Shitty or mediocre 3D movies just have people standing around somewhat separated from their background, good ones make you sense a world all around you, or at least feel like you’re looking into a world that you could step into and be surrounded by.
The fights are kinetic and cartoonish, the style that’s more about exaggerated abilities than any real type of fighting. Splitting or catching arrows in the air, running up and down walls, balancing on chains, that type of thing. 3D is a real good component to add to this type of action, it works really well. I think the Imax part is kind of a liability though. It’s not hard to follow, but it would be easier on a screen that wasn’t so overwhelming.
I think after a great introduction Li unfortunately leaves the movie for too long to create a character for the ages. Or maybe I just missed too many of the subtitles to understand what was going on with his romance at the end. And whatever was going on with the flute. Still, I immediately noticed how much better he was showcased in this than in the EXEPNDABLESes. He’s allowed to move more and pose like a super hero and his costume emphasizes this. It sounds like his real voice but of course he speaks better in his native language. More importantly he gets to grimace and look out on the desert like a spaghetti western anti-hero. Not his best role, but good enough to remind you why Jet Li is great.
Also he has a big fight while floating inside a tornado.
Story-wise this might do better for you on DVD and blu-ray, and some of those shots that were compromised by the digital projection will I’m sure look much better. The colors looked pretty blown out and not as vivid as the trailer below (which would’ve helped me understand the story better if I’d watch it, by the way). But if you like 3D movies and it’s still playing near you (I thought today was the last day, but the trailer suggests one more week) I suggest you get your ass over there.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.