In the wuxia drama “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,” fists and feet fly as enemy combatants form and break alliances and backbones. The major innovation, in this case, is the 3D format, but make no mistake, this is a throwback. While action legend Tsui Hark’s latest whizzes and whirs with the dazzling sight of martial arts brawls happening in your lap, many accented by elaborate CG effects, 'Flying Swords' is most assuredly a product of its genre, with characters taking flight, projectiles being fired, and romances curled up into twisted knots.
Those who saw Hark’s latest, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” noted that it was frenetic and over plotted, if still an absolute delight. However, 'Phantom Flame' is as simple as “Avatar” compared to 'Dragon Gate,' which heaps on the double and triple crosses. Jet Li, showing his age in face if not in style, is one of three bandits who, in the first scene, take down a tyrannical despot in a dashing explosion of the art form. Swords clang, heads are kicked through scaffolding, and our heroes reign triumphant.
The plot from this point is incidental. A female warrior protects a terrorized pregnant woman who comes from royalty, posing as one of Li’s bandits. The chase, which also involves a schmucky, vain prince and a duo of former lovers, find themselves at an inn in the middle of the desert during a sandstorm. Despite few of these characters wearing masks (infrequently), everyone’s identity is a puzzle box, continually unfolding to reveal frayed relationships, damaged egos and consistent failures.
The seemingly subterranean clan that already inhabits this inn, however, are in the perfect position to stage a power play. Speaking in an unrecognizable dialect, these rugged warriors, clothed in bear skin and dotted with tribal tattoos, seek to spoil the tension that’s radiating between all involved parties. It’s all a bunch of melodramatic hooey, of course, but when the lithe, seductive female clan leader starts threatening the manhood of those around her, it’s as if a looser, more improvised film has crashed into this mannered period piece. As if on cue, these warriors are also have multiple identities and ulterior motives — it’s less of a surprise, really, and more of an expectation at that point.
'Flying Swords' concludes during a violent sandstorm, a chance for the film to utilize 3D to pay homage to “Wizard of Oz,” both in the sense of fantastical adventure and the idea of those in power being false idols. By the film’s close, the royals involved in the plot all have committed their own peccadilloes, all guilty of some key plot element obscured by wrongdoing. Hark has built his career on toeing the line between nationalist cinema and irreverence, and in his accelerated age that line has proudly been crossed, even if the fare itself remains goofily escapist.
'Dragon Gate,' of course, is less interested in politics and more consumed in the gnarly back and forth between flying combatants, particularly in the climax. As the sandstorm rages on, a development that yields the sudden third act reveal of hidden gold and faked pregnancies, amongst a shuriken-tossing feud that launches straight towards the audience. Silly, distracting, and undeniably entertaining. [B]