Adizzying pileup of hyper-adrenalized action, “Swordsman II” will please ethnic auds and fans of the burgeoning Hong Kong cinema’s unique brand of spectacle. But narrative incoherency and a rather bleak undertow to all the surface frenzy make this period fantasy an unlikely candidate to break the genre to a crossover Western audience.
Overloaded plot has young swordsman Ling traveling with comically spacey sis Kiddo in search of monastic seclusion with the Sun Moon sect. But sect’s master has been imprisoned by flunky Fong the Invincible, whose possession of the “Sacred Scrolls” has allowed his magical mutation into the body of a woman. Meanwhile, Japanese troops threaten mainland Chinese takeover. Confusing but highly kinetic battles between various factions dominate the pic.
Fantastic elements bring this saga close to the realm of the “Chinese Ghost Story” movies, as nearly all protagonists (save myriad slaughtered extras) possess supernaturally heightened martial art powers. They fly through the air, summon a zillion poisonous snakes at a whim, et al. The “Essence Absorbing Stance” is a noteworthy fillip as various unlucky sorts get the bejeesus sucked out of them like inflatable dolls.
There’s no denying the energy and panache with which all this action is executed. But the script lacks the redeeming narrow focus of HK pix like “The Killer,” and its convolutions rob the film of badly needed narrative build.
Worse, the unsympathetic nature of the figureheads here (even the sect’s Master Wu proves grotesquely vengeance-hungry) makes the heroes’ quest seem pointless.
“Wherever there are people, there is inevitable conflict,” says one character in subtitles, but this theme mixes awkwardly with the general cartoonish zip. Overall mix of downer content with unrelentingly frenzied comic-book action is exhausting. Tech credits are high-grade.