Review: Storm Warriors (2009)

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It’s been a decade since Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng starred as Cloud and Wind respectively for Andrew Lau’s adaptation of Ma Wing-shing’s popular The Storm Riders (1998). Released on the cusp of the Hong Kong industry’s virtual collapse, it was a hit that set the digital standard for filmmaking in the SAR for years to come. It was also one of the last big, all-star epics from that period to find a cult following overseas.

So what’s changed, what’s new and what does it all mean? Have Danny and Oxide Pang pulled a James Cameron (Aliens) or Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) and trumped the original? The Pangs’ re-envisioning of the material for The Storm Warriors is most definitely a change of direction for the – wait for it – franchise. According to the gospel of the IMDB a third film is in development. Whether or not it’s the defibrillator the industry needs is anyone’s guess, but chances are good that Warriors will go down as a bit of a rebel. It’s an increasingly rare, pure Hong Kong film and it will sink or swim as such. There are no regional co-producers, the dialogue synchs with the pictures and it’s spoken in – gasp – Cantonese. All of it.

The story is every bit as ridiculous and chock full of pseudo-philosophical mantras as its predecessor. Narrative threads are introduced and promptly forgotten, characters lurk on the periphery and stay there. Allegedly significant elements pop up out of the ether like we should have been expecting them all along (as a non-reader this is an issue). But for every bone-headed plot point there’s a grand CG-enhanced duel to the near death that almost makes your forgive and forget.

Lord Godless (Yam, playing a dude with perhaps the greatest handle of all time) and his son Heart (Tse) are preparing for an invasion of China. In a blistering opening sequence, Godless faces off against Nameless (Ho, Eastern Condors) and indeed appears invincible. Nameless escapes with Cloud and Wind and the three make their way to Lord Wicked (Wong, I Corrupt All Cops) in order to find a way to boost their powers. Cloud opts to create his own sword style, but Wind takes a dodgier path. Like Luke facing his worst fears, Yoda, er, uh, Lord Wicked sends him into a cave to find and accept evil (huh?) for its power; his purer heart should protect him from going dark side. Or something. Meanwhile, the Emperor (Patrick Tam) is being held hostage by Godless and Heart so that he’ll tell them where to locate the Dragon Bone (which just might be the mummified spinal column of an earlier monarch?) that will give him dominion over all of China.

The biggest change the Pangs bring to Warriors is a palpably darker tone and the ability to make Cheng less obviously inept. The Pangs have inserted a touch of their own Bangkok Dangerous into the proceedings, and it makes for arguably more compelling viewing with flashes of genuine tension. Lau has a brighter, shinier aesthetic that gave Riders a cotton candy vibe (Kwok’s blue coif helped); Warriors is nastier, grittier and so much more Naughties. Sonny Chiba’s comic book heavy (diabolical laugh included) from Riders has been replaced with the irredeemable Godless and the sadistic Heart. Yam can pull off sinister crazy in his sleep and Tse proves his scene-swiping performance in the otherwise dreadful The Promise was no fluke. Kwok stares at the ground and turns his head sharply again, leaving Cheng the award for most improved. Danny Pang directed him in Leave Me Alone, and so has a handle on how best to exploit his, um, talents. Here his general vacancy serves Wind’s descent into robotic badassery well.

This is noisy, nonsensical entertainment for entertainment’s sake; like a good chunk of epic fantasy filmmaking these days, Warriors is ultimately the sum total of its noticeably improved effects. But that ‘realism’ takes the Sunday Matinee edge off it, rendering it less an amusing trifle and more of a wannabe complex superhero opus à la Iron Man or The Dark Knight – minus guts and context. It’s also very macho, so whining about neither Charlene Choi nor Tang Yan as Second Dream and Chu Chu being the heirs apparent to Brigitte Lin is moot. In fairness, both have underwritten characters that do very little for the story and neither can compensate for that with sheer screen presence; their dialogue mostly comprises ‘Wind!’ and ‘Cloud!’. But does that really matter when the main attraction is the fusion kung fu and creative fighting? Not a lick. Warriors’ highlights (excepting Kwok’s abs, and yes, he does doff his shirt) include the opening sword battle and Cloud’s throwdown with Godless. Let’s just call it death by dental floss and leave it at that.

6.5 flying broadswords out of 10.
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