Lady Detective Shadow


Up on the rooftops.

(2018) Martial Arts (Dark Coast) Shang Ring, Zhang Pei-yue, Qi Jing-bin, Zhang Ren-bo, Qiu Yun-he. Directed by Si Shu-Bu

 

In China, Wuxia films are a staple, much as superhero films are here and westerns were in the 50s. They made some brief cultural impact with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon back in 2000 (and the legendary fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen who perfected wire work and is responsible for the graceful fight sequences in that film reportedly worked on this one) although it was to be, sadly, merely a brief moment in the American sun.

This film features Shang Ring in the title role as an itinerant Sherlock Holmes-like detective who travels throughout China solving whatever mystery comes her way. In the desert badlands of an, a string of brutal murders have been committed and the prefect of the city is sure that bandits from a neighboring town which is run by bandit gangs are to blame. Certainly, the evidence points in that direction as there is a literal convention of gangs occurring in an inn on the edge of town where the detective is staying along with her comic relief assistant (program note: none of the roles have been matched with the actors playing them in any literature I’ve been able to find other than the lead role). The Lady, whose given name is Sima Fei-yan, happens to be the niece of the city prefect who urges her to solve the crime for him. It also gives her a chance to catch up with the prefect’s son whom she grew up with and was at one time sweet on.

The closer she gets to the truth, however, the more she realizes that she is getting involved in something much larger than a mere serial killing. She is on the verge of unlocking an ancient secret that could mean life or death for those she cares about most.

Like many Wuxia films, the plot can be hard to follow sometimes and the subtitles roll across at light speed, sometimes too fast for even readers who are fairly speedy to make out. Characters show up in the film whose sole purpose is to kick the McGillicuddy out of somebody (or have it kicked out of them). The acting is over-the-top, the dialogue clunky and the special effects are often rudimentary at best. Some cinephiles turn their noses up at Wuxia for those reasons but true lovers of the genre realize that’s part of their goofy charm.

Most of the genre’s Western fans tend to come for the fight sequences and to be honest they won’t be disappointed, although they won’t be blown away either. This was a low-budget affair and at times it shows, whether on the lack of star power or the occasionally incomprehensible special effects decisions – just FYI guys, when horses gallop in the desert they leave a contrail of dust in their wake.

As entertainment goes, this is fun to watch if you understand the genre. Those who despise Wuxia films will likely not be converted to the cause watching this. Those that love them and forgive them their occasionally many sins are likely to find this a worthwhile investment of their time. Those unfamiliar with the genre and who are looking for an introduction to it, this probably isn’t a worthy starting point but at the same time it does maintain a lot of the elements common to most Wuxia films. One gets the sense that the producers were hoping to initiate a new franchise with this. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were successful in that goal.

REASONS TO SEE: The action is non-stop, just the way it should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story can be hard to follow and the special effects are weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie was initially made for Chinese television.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sides of a Horn

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco

Black Death


Winter is here.

Winter is here.

(2010) Medieval Horror (Magnet) Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Jamie Ballard, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon, Tobias Kasimirowicz, Keith Dunphy, Tim McInnerny, Marianne Graffam. Directed by Chris Smith

Back in the Dark Ages, the bubonic plague must have seemed like the end of the world. A pandemic that seemed to spare nobody, there was only rudimentary medical science and literally no protection against its ravages. Entire villages and even districts were wiped out by it.

So when a village seemed to be emerging unscathed from the horrors of the plague, the Church was suspicious. Witchcraft must be involved. Ulrich (Bean), a no-nonsense knight if ever there was one, is dispatched to the town to discover the truth and if necessary, put a stop to it. He enlists Osmund (Redmayne), a monk who knows the area well.

Osmund is pious but no saint. His girlfriend (Nixon) has been sent ahead into the forest to escape the plague. Osmund had plans to meet her there before being drafted. He joins (albeit reluctantly) Ulrich’s troop which includes a gleeful torturer (Nyman), a grim warrior (Lynch) and a mute killer (Gernandt). The group has issues, including being forced to strike down one of their own (Ballard) who is stricken by the plague, as well as having to take on bandits.

Eventually they reach the village which is seemingly controlled by two individuals – Hob (McInnerny) and Langiva (van Houten). During dinner, the me are drugged and put into a water-filled cage in the swamp while Osmund is given a horrible decision regarding his girlfriend whom he’d feared was dead. And the fears of the Church may not be entirely unfounded when it seems that there is a necromancer in the village who is powerful enough to raise the dead…

Smith is best known in this country for Severance but has actually directed several nifty little horror films in Britain. He is known for some fairly gritty films, but this might be the grittiest. This is not a Sword in the Stone England where everything is clean and healthy but what it really was like; foul, filthy and full of pestilence.

Good thing he’s got Sean Bean. Bean, who has of late made his medieval mark on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO is just as great here. He is strong, a great fighter, an inspiring leader but not without faults. His belief in the Church is staunch and unwavering but his unquestioning faith leads him to do acts that are most certainly unholy.

Redmayne is perfectly suited for the role of the pious Osmund. Osmund is terribly conflicted; on the one hand there are the vows to the church but on the other his forbidden love. Redmayne captures this division nicely and Osmund’s terrible dilemma is made very relatable. Van Houten, one of the best actresses in the Netherlands (if you haven’t seen Black Book by all means go out and rent it) plays the femme fatale to the hilt, and gives Langiva a very sensuous edge. The veteran character actor McInnerny also has a deliciously bad side to him.

The two sides – the Church and the pagans – don’t distinguish themselves here which makes it tough to have a rooting interest (it’s Osmund by default). That makes for a pretty grim fairy tale and that can get taken to extremes. The battle scenes are pretty violent and there’s nothing clean about them. There are no Errol Flynn acrobatics, no Lord of the Rings legerdemain, just a bunch of guys hacking away at each other with pointy things which was pretty much what medieval warfare was all about.

You may wonder what point there is to the movie with the ending which is, like the rest of the movie, pretty much a downer. I’m not sure you really need to look for one. This is a pretty strong movie that has overtones of horror, action and fantasy. However, don’t look here if you’re looking for the feel-good movie of the year. Then again, if you’re looking in the feel-good movie of the year it’s unlikely you’d be in the horror section anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: Spot-on re-creation of medieval England. Strong performances by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overly brutal in the violence. Ending seems a bit pointless. Might be a bit too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense in places. There are also a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rupert Friend was originally cast as Osmund but was eventually replaced by Redmayne.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some behind-the-scenes footage (separate from the standard making-of featurette) and some interviews with the filmmakers.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $265,318 on an unreported production budget; I think it unlikely that the film was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centurion

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meek’s Cutoff

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning


Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

The reason elephants never forget – elephant school!

(2008) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirichanya, Santisuk Phromsiri, Primorata Dejudom, Phetthai Wongkamlao, Pattama Panthong, Suppakorn Kitsuwan, Natdhanal Kongthong, Prarinya Karmkeaw. Directed by Tony Jaa

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Apparently the word didn’t make it to Tony Jaa’s neck of the woods. Vengeance is most definitely his.

This is mostly sort of kind of a prequel to his international hit Ong Bak which introduced Jaa, a muay thai champion to the world. Here he also assumes the director’s chair and sets the action 600 years in the past. Tien (Jaa) is the young son of Lord Sihadencho (Phromsiri), ruler of an outlying province. Tien is impetuous and unruly; he wants very badly to be trained in martial arts but his father insists on giving him dance lessons, much to Tien’s chagrin.

Mysterious assassins, sent by Lord Rajasena (Wongkrachang), massacre the family of Sihadencho, with Tien the lone survivor. His troubles are far from over; he is captured by slave traders who tire of his non-cooperation and throw him unarmed into a pit with a gigantic crocodile. Right about then a bandit gang, the Pha Beek Khrut, attacks the village where the slave traders are headquartered and the leader of the Pha Beek Khrut, Chernang (Chatree) tosses a knife to young Tien and tells him his fate is in his own hands. When Tien proves victorious, Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and gives him the martial arts training he’s so long desired.

Soon Tien is fully trained with weapons and hand-to-hand combat both and has become a formidable warrior, likely the best in all Thailand. The time is right to claim vengeance, going after the slave traders first and then Lord Rajasena himself by posing as a dancer during a celebration. However, Lord Rajasena is no fool and has protections in place that even Tien will be hard-pressed to breach, but Tien expects that. What he doesn’t expect is betrayal from very close at hand.

This is kind of a mess. While the first Ong Bak is action packed beginning to end, this one is less so; the story is disjointed and confusing and there really is nothing linking it to the first movie whatsoever (although the third movie in the trilogy serves that purpose). At times you almost want to tear out your hair and just throw the disc through the nearest window.

The good news is that the best thing about the first film is still here and that’s Jaa’s amazing muay thai moves. The climactic battle scene is as good a martial arts sequence as I’ve seen in any film and would be worth the rental all by itself.

Jaa has plenty of charisma which transcends language; he’s an appealing character who could follow Jet Li into the mainstream Hollywood spotlight. My problem is that I didn’t really feel his rage; considering all that he went through that’s key to the movie, giving the audience a surrogate for their own outrage. Jaa doesn’t get mad so much as he gets even; part of it is that getting even isn’t really enough.

I read another review in which the reviewer suggested turning off the sound and subtitles and just watching it as a martial arts exhibition and that’s not a bad idea. I’m not sure if the screenwriting was not up to par, or if Jaa’s inexperience as a director was the culprit, or if the many production problems got the best of the filmmakers or maybe if it’s just a cultural thing. At the end of the day this just isn’t a very good movie unless you happen to like martial arts so much you don’t care if the story makes sense. In that case, this is for you.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing muay thai sequences and beautiful cinematography of sweeping Thai vistas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and incomprehensible; ending is abrupt and jarring.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of martial arts violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jaa left the production for two months while financing for the film was in flux.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.9M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly this made good money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Protector

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 3

Mirror Mirror


Mirror Mirror

Armie Hammer expresses what we already know while Julia Roberts looks on in amusement - Worst. Costume. Ever.

(2012) Fantasy (Relativity) Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Sean Bean, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Michael Lerner, Robert Emms. Directed by Tarsem Singh

 

Fairy tales are all about happily ever afters. That’s why we read them even as adults – we want to believe that no matter how bad things get, things will end up the way they’re supposed to be.

I wonder if Snow White (Collins) believes in them. She’s been locked up in her father’s castles for most of her life. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, the King (Bean) married a woman noted for her beauty and made her Queen (Roberts). Shortly after that, the King ventured into the dark forest and was never heard from again.

The Queen took over and immediately turned the kingdom into her own personal playground. She raised taxes to unbearable levels and used the proceeds to buy herself a lavish wardrobe and throw extravagant parties. However, she has depleted the treasury to the point where her administrator Brighton (Lane) warns her that there is no money left – for anything.

Quite by chance young Prince Andrew Alcott (Hammer) is traveling through the kingdom with his faithful aide-de-camp, Charles Renbock (Emms) when he is set upon by seven bandits with unusually long legs. They rob him of everything including his clothes, leaving him to be discovered by the Queen who realizes that the Prince, who hails from a wealthy Kingdom, could be the answer to her financial problems.

The trouble is that Snow has discovered how destitute the people of her kingdom are and how despotic her stepmother is. The Queen realizes that Snow is not only inconvenient to her plans, she is a downright obstacle – she and Prince Andrew are very attracted to each other. The Queen orders Brighton to take Snow out into the dark woods and murder her, but Brighton can’t do it and when the roar of the Beast that haunts the wood is heard, both go running in opposite directions. Brighton stops by the butcher shop to pick up some animal entrails (and a roll of sausages) to prove that Snow is dead and gone.

In the meantime she has discovered the lair of the bandits who turn out to be seven dwarves, cast out of the town because the Queen found them ugly. Each of them – Napoleon (Prentice), Half Pint (Povinelli), Grub (Gnoffo), Woodburn (Grimm), Saraceno (Wolf), Klebba (Butcher) and Chuckles (Clark) each have something distinctive about them.  Grub loves to eat, Half Pint is something of a ladies’ man, Wolf is half-wild and Chuckles – well, you can guess.

At first they don’t want the girl among them – too much trouble but when Snow proves to be useful and resourceful, they grow genuinely fond of her. Snow is ready to take back her kingdom from the wicked Queen, but the Queen has enchanted the Prince to fall in puppy love with her and he is willing to do anything for her – including kill Snow White.

Singh is the director of such visual spectacles as The Cell and Immortals. He has a very strong imagination and I give him props for it. This is his first attempt at a family film and at comedy in the same shot and it does show a side of him we haven’t seen up to now.

Roberts is the biggest reason to go see this movie. She captures the character of the Queen perfectly; vain, arch and a little bit naughty but with a whole lot of nasty. She doesn’t always have the best dialogue but Roberts makes up for it with sheer caustic attitude. Because she’s so dang beautiful, some people tend to underestimate her star quality. Trust me, she’s a star for a reason and this film might end up being the quintessential example of her work.

Armie Hammer first wowed viewers in a dual role in The Social Network. I think he has great things in store for him. Prince Andrew is a little bit dense and possessed with an overabundance of a sense of honor. Hammer gives him a bit of a goofy edge but with a sweetheart core. He seems to be a pretty easygoing fella, one you’d want to hang out and share a tankard of ale with at the local pub while watching the jousting. He is also quite easy on the eyes I understand. Not that I’m a judge of that sort of thing.

Tarsem was working on this almost right about the same time he finished up Immortals and one wonders if he was stretched too thin – the CGI effects on both were a little bit rocky. I don’t mind CGI but I get a little put out when it looks like CGI. You’re taken out of the movie when that happens.

There are wonderful sets and amazing costumes here – the last from Oscar winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in January. Other than the unconvincing CGI, this looks sumptuous. Unfortunately, the dialogue is mediocre and the movie tries way too hard to be fun instead of just being fun. Roberts understands how to make a movie feel fun and inventive, and the dwarves are pretty good at it too. Lily Collins, the daughter of Phil Collins, didn’t blow me out of the water as much as she did with other critics but there are plenty who think she has a bright future and I agree with them.

Overall, I was quite disappointed. I was hoping for something light and fun and it was the former but missed a bit in the latter. Give or take a few details, this could have been a marvelous film. It nevertheless is okay entertainment that fans of Julia Roberts will adore and those who don’t care for her might not like. Personally I think she does a good enough job that she makes the movie worth seeing all by herself.

REASONS TO GO: Roberts chews the scenery wonderfully. Hammer’s star continues to rise. Inventive in more than a few places, particularly on costumes and set design.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI. Weak dialogue. Never really rises to the level of the visuals.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit rude, there are a few disturbing images of fairy tale monsters and there is a bit of fantasy action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming, Julia Roberts’ young children would often hide in the skirts of her elaborate gowns without anyone being the wiser.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are extremely mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Jam

COSTUME LOVERS: The costumes, particularly the dresses Julia Roberts wears, are extremely elaborate and over-the-top. Those who love fashion – particularly the more esoteric sort – will enjoy the outfits here.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Love, Wedding, Marriage

The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong)


The Warlords

A blood oath is taken.

(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan

Blood brotherhood is not a bond to be taken lightly. It is a vow that infers a relationship that is as close – if not closer – than blood. It is a bond that lasts until death.

In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.

Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.

He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.

Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.

During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.

Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.

The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.

The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?

Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.

I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.

In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.

Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.

REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.

HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Max Payne