After his grizzled turns in “Battle of Wits” and “The Warlords,” Hong Kong star Andy Lau saddles up again in the sweeping costume actioner “Resurrection of the Dragon.” Though playing fast and loose with third-century history, when China was split into three warring kingdoms, pic delivers enough gritty action, heroic melancholia and widescreen spectacle to satisfy fans of classic Asian epics, though romance and psychology hardly figure. Already a hit in Asia this April, the big-budgeter has some theatrical potential in Western markets and plenty of puff in ancillary, though the market in Chinese historical spectacles is already crowded.
Film has little of the personal drama of Peter Chan’s ambitious “Warlords,” and none of the retro ’80s Hong Kong feel of the recent “An Empress and Her Warriors.” In look, it follows the current Asian trend for gutsy, dirty action in spectacular, wide-open spaces, and gains considerable heft from a cast of seasoned vets (Lau, Sammo Hung, Yu Rongguang), all in top form, alongside yesteryear legends like Ti Lung and Yueh Hua. Pic is a major surprise coming from the only average helmer Daniel Lee (“Black Mask”).
Set in roughly the same period as the forthcoming “Red Cliff,” the film also functions as a kind of warm-up for the massive John Woo-helmed epic, coming down the pike this year in Asia (in two parts) and early next year (as a single movie) in the West.
Cleanly scripted “a hero will arise” story starts in A.D. 228, with the rival kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu battling for supremacy. In the Shu army, portly vet Luo Ping’an (Hung) — who also doubles as pic’s mordant narrator — meets Zhao Zilong (Lau), a warrior from the same hometown of Changshan, and they pledge brotherhood.
The Shu army, under Gen. Liu (Yueh), is up against the numerically superior Wei forces, commanded by Gen. Cao (Damian Lau). Thanks to the deus ex machina help of legendary general Zhuge Liang (mainland thesp Pu Quanxin, in a humorous cameo), the Shu score a small victory, boosting the profiles of Luo and the lesser-known Zhao.
After a daring solo mission against Cao, Zhao is feted as a hero back in Changshan, and in the next 20 years goes on to become a legendary general.
Now silver-haired, Zhao leads one final expedition north against the Wei. Broader politics conspire to isolate Zhao in a seemingly hopeless delaying action in Phoenix Heights.
Appearance at the hour mark of Hawaii-born sexpot Maggie Q, as Cao’s warrior granddaughter, threatens to take the movie into campier territory. But by then, its tone has morphed from heroic glory into an unassailable melancholy; the blood-and-guts third act, played out in wintry desert locations, has a kind of “El Cid”-like wistfulness.
Tightly cut movie has almost no downtime but also no sense of rush. Large cast is relatively clearly defined, and details of costuming, armor and massive artillery have a fresh, unfamiliar look. Action, staged by Hung and fellow Hong Kong vet Yuen Tak, and deftly supported by CGI done in South Korea, largely avoids the purely fantastic. Reported $20 million tab is all up on the screen.
Major kudo is also due to Henry Lai’s sweepingly melodic score. Shamelessly incorporating nods to Ennio Morricone’s “Dollars” soundtracks, as well as Hong Kong classics like “Once Upon a Time in China,” the music motors the picture and gives it a true heroic stature.
Publicity claims the script was inspired by Chapter 92 of the historical chronicle “Three Kingdoms,” titled “Zhao Zilong’s Army Confined in Phoenix Heights.”