Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2012-11-12
Summary: Could have been left alone
Experiencing “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” on home video is the worst of all possible worlds; one misses the flashy, CGI driven 3-D effects, like the probably dizzying swoop through the shipyard at the very beginning, but is all too aware of its dramatic and cinematic shortcomings. Most of the characters are stereotypical and flat. The ending is too long by half and doesn’t really end anything. While it is important to approach any work on its own merits it is also impossible (at least for me) not to think of “Dragon Inn” from twenty years earlier. Two decades from now the 1992 film will still be considered a classic while “Flying Swords” may be just a footnote in Tsui Hark’s career.

Zhao Huaian and his two sidekicks are perfectly noble, dedicating their lives to ridding China of corrupt officials, one severed head at a time. They are tireless, almost impervious to wounds and always willing to sacrifice themselves for China. Jet Li has spent a career playing such roles but with his wuxia prowess replaced with computer generated action his Zhao comes across as relentless but aloof. The audience could have thrilled to the exploits of Ling Yanqiu as she protected Su Huirong. Ling was a woman with a mysterious past disguised as a man; she can skewer a bad guy with the best of them and is chivalrous but with a streak of the loner. When Su asked too many personal questions Ling simply told her to stop or risk being left at the side of the road to be found by Eunuch Yu Huatain’s killers. Ling Yanqiu has been involved with Zhao Huaian in the recent past and identifies with him to the extent of taking his name as a nom de guerre. Unfortunately as a character she is much less than the sum of her parts. Zhao is noble and stoic; Ling is noble and petulant.

Su is whiny, ungrateful and much too nosy for a maid being hunted by killers because she was made pregnant by someone at court, possibly the Emperor. The reasons for her odd behavior are revealed through a series of clues involving a special purse she carries but her real loyalty is questionable from the beginning.

Eunuch Yu Huatian is powerful, charismatic and full of energy; his enemies are anyone who stands in his way, whether it is bureaucrats from the rival West Bureau or insurgents trying to end his corrupt influence on the imperial court. His West Bureau advance team are either craven or stupid or perhaps both. When confronted with the professional criminal Wind Blade, who looks exactly like the Eunuch but who struts and blusters without Yu’s malevolent self-confidence and razor sharp intuition, they are either dumb enough that they fail to see how uncharacteristically the phony Eunuch is acting or are so cowed by him that they simply accept the imposter at face value.

Wind Blade is an interesting character—an informer, he lives by his wits and will betray anyone for the right price. He knows his place in the scheme of things but exploits his uncanny resemblance to the Eunuch as far as he can. We want him to get away with audacious impersonation, even though he had to be pushed into it by his partner Gu Shaotang.

The Tartars, whose female leader is strikingly portrayed by Kwai Lun-Mei as a feral, half-savage creature, are tough, self-reliant, used to taking what they want and defend each other against all comers. When everyone finally arrives at the inn—a place about to buried by a black sandstorm that occurs every sixty years—things should become more intense. The film misses the sparks that should fly from the claustrophobic friction of good, evil and simply opportunistic people running into each other in the storm isolated inn by introducing a second focus of action, a courier station that is within a day’s ride and which is safe from the storm. Characters come and go from the station and the killer sandstorm takes forever to arrive after being on the horizon or overhead for a very long time.

Re-imagining a popular movie is treacherous. For every success, like the Judy Garland/ Sid Luft remake of “A Star is Born” there are failures such as the execrable 2004 Madonna/Guy Ritchie “Swept Away” or the Sylvester Stallone for Michael Caine remake of “Get Carter”. Tsui Hark’s effort falls between these extremes but was hardly worth the time, talent and money that went into it.
Reviewer Score: 5