JUDGE ARCHER (2012) is the second film directed by martial artist/novelist/writer of THE GRANDMASTER Xu Haofeng. It’s arguably more accessible than his debut, THE SWORD IDENTITY, because it’s bigger, has way more action, and is not too hung up on realism to exaggerate the martial arts. But by the end the story had taken so many oddball turns that even I couldn’t quite follow it all.
That’s okay. It’s an unusual martial arts experience that I recommend if you’re open minded and enjoy the good things in life such as duels, arrows, swords, etc.
Song Yang (who also starred in THE SWORD IDENTITY) plays a young man who goes mad after an atrocity that has just happened when the opening titles end. We don’t have to see anything, but the way it’s depicted is horrifying: a rough wind blows through the corn fields, and three farmers stand watching as two men pin him down. Just over a hill he can hear his sister screaming, and then a guy comes over the hill, pulling his pants up, and leaves with the other two men.
Suddenly we find our guy bound and gagged in a monastery. The monks found him in a rage, blaming himself for not being able to stop the attack on his sister. They perform a ritual for him to be reborn, telling him “When you jump over the wall, the words spoken by the first person you meet will be your new name.” On his journey he hears someone yelling “Judge Archer!” followed by gun shots, so when an old monk hiding in the bushes asks him his name he says, “Judge Archer.”
“Judge Archer is my name as well,” says the old man. “From now on, you and I will share the same name.” By accidentally co-opting this guy’s “cursed name,” he becomes the seventh generation of “Judge Archer,” an arbitrator who travels around settling disputes between martial arts schools.
Most of the story takes place years later, when our new Judge Archer is a master fighter (and yes, archer) who comes into a town to test the schools. We watch and learn some of his methods, such as firing four closely-clustered arrows into a school to announce his arrival. A signature that’s difficult to forge. We first see it when he interrupts two schools about to go at it with broad swords and tells them to “settle it over a cup of tea.”
My favorite thing in this movie is a fighting method I’ve never seen before and have no idea if it’s real or made up. It’s called the “close up duel” and it opens the movie and repeats throughout. Two competitors pull small benches close to each other, sit down facing each other with their knees almost touching, and then fight sitting down with a quick exchange of hand and foot movements.
I’m surprised Seagal hasn’t found out about this yet – he loves doing movies where he can sit down the whole time. It kind of reminds me of the way Beatrix Kiddo finally kills Bill, especially in the opening duel where a guy seems to have lost but he gets up and as he walks away his opponent falls over as if dead. Another time this same master of close up fighting rocks a guy’s head back and forth between his forearms so hard his chair shakes and knocks over all the plaques on a shrine to the ancestors. Some symbolism there, I think.
Judge Archer is so good that he wins a close-up duel shortly after being passed out drunk on seven bottles of wine. Then he uses his hat to knock out a guy who attacks him with a sickle right outside the restaurant. Xu’s imagination for and/or vast knowledge of different ways to fight really comes through in this one. A woman named Erdong (Yenny Martin) keeps a piece of twine wrapped around her wrist that she uses as a weapon, looping it around men’s necks or through their fingers to incapacitate them.
When Judge Archer wakes up in bed with Erdong, he leaps under the bed, reaches up and puts her in an arm lock, gets the string around his neck. This tension continues later in a hotel room where she puts her hands around him, he flops her onto the bed, she leaps up with two knives and they duel! He pins her to the bed with a chair to keep her away.
Though her seduction attempts piss him off, he agrees to help her avenge her father’s killer, Commander Yang. He spies on the commander by opening a fruit stand that he walks by every day on the way to his accordion lessons, guarded by Kuang Yimin (Cheng-Hui Yu, SHAOLIN TEMPLE), the master who won the opening close up duel. Kuang stops at the fruit stand every day to get a pear, which he carries around and smells (though he also knows a trick to twist the stem and pull the core out).
The Judge also meets a sad opera singer named Yue Yahong (Chengyuan Li, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) who enjoys both pears and hugs and tries to sell herself to him for 15 apples. He gives in to temptation, against his training, and immediately decides to quit being Judge Archer to run away with her. What is this, a Batman movie? The bad news is she’s actually Kuang’s wife, sent to spy on this new fruit stand guy to find out what he’s up to. Judge Archer outsmarts Kuang by asking him to trade Yang’s life for his wife’s, then just leaving her alive knowing he agreed to it.
This is a good story, as much as I can follow it, but even when I can’t there are just endlessly enjoyable individual scenes and duels. Like the one where Judge Archer comes into a school and takes on every student inside, systematically plowing through them until only a few are standing. When it seems like he’s done, another 15 to 20 guys step out, most with wooden poles or swords, and he keeps going. When he leaves one of the teachers chases after and asks, “Why did you do that?” He stops for a second and smiles. I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I loved it!
There’s also the duel between Kuang and his protege, using long wooden poles. You know the shit is serious when they whack them against trees to break off the ends and make them sharp.
Also Judge Archer goes back to his village and fucks up that guy who raped his sister. Catches him walking through that same cornfield, shoots his hat off with an arrow. Then one through each leg. People standing around watching like before. Must be cathartic.
The final duel is between Judge Archer and Kuang and it’s the opposite of a close up duel: Judge Archer sits in a chair firing arrows from a long distance, but Kuang blocks them with a spear as he moves toward him until they can face off hand to hand.
Xu is so great at the odd little details. Judge Archer sometimes holds up an arrow and stares at it because it has cuts in it from his hotel room knife duel with Erdong. General Yang carries an accordion for all his scenes but we never see him play it; it finally makes a sound when he dies and it flops over.
The sound effects in this one are just beautiful. Wooden poles pinging off of each other, scraping against each other, metal blades sliding across chain mail, skulls plonking against wooden columns, string snapping and zipping as it’s swung around people and tightened, the gentle patter of the foot work. I love the combination of more-realistic-than-usual and just-as-exaggerated-as-you’d-expect.
I think it’s fair to criticize this one for some of the visual storytelling and narrative being hard to compute, but it also has just the right tone that a little mystery and confusion feels pretty natural. It’s a beautiful and distinct martial arts movie that I found captivating from beginning to end on two separate viewings.