An ambitious attempt to replicate a popular martial arts manga on the bigscreen with elaborate CGI work and location shooting in China, "The Storm Riders" largely succeeds on the tech front but, like many pics in the genre, hits problems compressing its complex story down to feature length. Heavily promoted, star-laden pic got off to a good start in Hong Kong, where it set a new opening-day record July 18, beating out those set by "Titanic" and "The Lost World." On the strength of helmer Andrew Lau's name ("Young and Dangerous"), this entertaining extravaganza should roll into fantasy-fest slots and provide midnight fodder in others.

An ambitious attempt to replicate a popular martial arts manga on the bigscreen with elaborate CGI work and location shooting in China, “The Storm Riders” largely succeeds on the tech front but, like many pics in the genre, hits problems compressing its complex story down to feature length. Heavily promoted, star-laden pic got off to a good start in Hong Kong, where it set a new opening-day record July 18, beating out those set by “Titanic” and “The Lost World.” On the strength of helmer Andrew Lau’s name (“Young and Dangerous”), this entertaining extravaganza should roll into fantasy-fest slots and provide midnight fodder in others.

After cranking out six “Young and Dangerous” pics in less than three years, “Riders” reps a change of pace for cinematographer-turned-director Lau, even though “Y&D” was also drawn from a manga and the present movie re-teams him with “Y&D” star Ekin Cheng. Film’s look has none of the hand-held looseness of the street-punk series.

Shooting on “Riders” began in May 1997 in Sichuan province, China; subsequent CGI work was undertaken by H.K. post house Centro, pic’s co-producer.

Initial reels hew closely to the story’s comic-book origins, with some striking dissolves between computer-generated images and real actors and sets, creating a unique world somewhere between manga and cinema. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, the f/x become more conventionally centered on showing the characters’ magic powers.

Opening 20 minutes pack in a lot of plot, with martial arts king Lord Conqueror (Japanese vet Sonny Chiba) informed by cringing acolytes that he can remain invincible for the first half of his life by adopting two young disciples , Wind and Cloud, currently young kids. They will help him, 10 years hence, in a duel with his only remaining threat, the Sword Saint. L.C. promptly kidnaps the kids, and a decade later, the real story begins.

Following some nonsense involving a quest for a magical sword forged by Cloud’s father (Yu Rongguang), L.C. pairs the grown Wind (Cheng) off with his daughter, Charity (Kristy Yang), much to the chagrin of Cloud (Aaron Kwok, with electric blue hair), who actually slept with her first. In a duel between the two guys, Charity is accidentally killed, and Cloud later loses his arm in a fight with L.C.

Luckily, the wounded Cloud is cared for by Muse (Taiwanese nymphette Shu Qi), tomboy daughter of an herbalist doctor who generously gives Cloud his own left arm so Cloud can fight another day. Meanwhile, L.C. dispatches Wind to get some magical stones, guarded by a CG fire wolf, to help him in his imminent duel with the Sword Saint (Anthony Wong). En route, however, Wind learns that L.C. planned his death.

Faced with a manga that’s been running for nine years, with no conclusion in sight, scripter Manfred Wong adapted only the first third, but still has problems fully fleshing out many of the participants. The doctor and his daughter are suddenly introduced an hour in, an interesting early character (Mud Buddha) is abandoned, Sword Saint is almost completely unbackgrounded, and many others hover vaguely on the sidelines. It’s a common problem in adapting sprawling Chinese swordplay yarns, and one not solved here by Wong.

Still, Lau brings visual elan to much of the pic, and both Kwok and Cheng, with their flashing-eyed looks, long hair and designer leather duds, impressively incarnate the spirit of the manga heroes. Chiba, too, evinces real authority as the all-powerful villain, and Shu Qiadds a welcome touch of sexy comic naturalness as the slightly klutzy Muse.

Centro’s f/x work is generally impressive on the widescreen, both in the episode with the fire wolf and in digital touchups to shot footage. Spacious mainland locations add breadth to the story, with director Lau himself taking on lensing chores as well.

The Storm Riders

(FUNG WAN: HUNGBA TINHA)

Production

(MARTIAL ARTS FANTASY -- HONG KONG) A Golden Harvest release (in Hong Kong) of a Golden Harvest Pictures (China) Ltd. presentation, in association with Centro Digital (Hong Kong) and Tian Shan Film Studio (China), of a Bob & Partners Co. production. Produced by Raymond Chow,John Chu. Executive producers, Chu, Li Zhu'an, Manfred Wong. Executive in charge of production, Jessinta Liu. Directed by Andrew Lau. Screenplay, Manfred Wong, based on a screenplay by Chau Ting, based on the manga by Ma Wing-shing. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Lau; editors, Mak Chi-sin, Pang Fat; music supervisor, Chan Kwong-wing; production designer, Wong Ka-nang; art director, Cyrus Ho; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Tsang King-cheung; martial arts director, Dion Lam; special visual effects, Centro Digital; visual effects director, Wong Kin-ming; assistant directors, Yip Wai-man, Cheung Siu-kin, Wong Wai-hung. Reviewed at Golden Village Pavilion 1, Singapore, July 25, 1998. Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Cloud ..... Aaron Kwok Wind ..... Ekin Cheng Lord Conqueror ..... Sonny Chiba Charity ..... Kristy Yang Muse ..... Shu Qi Frost ..... Michael Tse Sword Saint ..... Anthony Wong Jester ..... Lawrence Cheng Shaolin Monk ..... Roy Cheung Mud Buddha ..... Lai Yiu-hung Wind's Father ..... Alex Fong Cloud's Father ..... Yu Rongguang
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