A remake of the 1989 kung fu fantasy “The Iceman Cometh,” in which a Ming dynasty warrior time-travels to contempo Hong Kong, “Iceman 3D” is snowed under by f/x of variable quality, as well as a crucial lack of gut-busting martial arts. Theoretically, the pairing of action legend Donnie Yen (“Ip Man”) with mainland comic heavyweight Wang Baoqiang (“Lost in Thailand”) in an epic fantasy should cause a commercial avalanche in Chinese and international markets. But the final product will leave fans cold: Neither thesps maximize their potential, and helmer Law Wing-cheong’s lax execution of a corny plot is further marred by foul toilet humor. Tellingly, the pic was beaten to the top spot at the B.O. on opening day by the modest youth romance “My Old Classmate.”
While Clarence Fok’s original film got by on awesome action choreography and chemistry between leads Yuen Biao and Maggie Cheung, channeling “Highlander” with its tongue-in-cheek humor, “Iceman 3D” reps a throwback to the most pedestrian of ’90s Hong Kong actioners, pumped up with Hollywood-style blockbuster pretensions. Reportedly fraught with technical issues and budget overruns, the film was reshaped and will now be released in two installments, which partly explains its drawn-out feel. Law, who has been an associate director at Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image since 1997 and helmed the brooding noir thriller “Punished,” here fails to achieve any coherence in narrative structure, genre or style.
“Iceman 3D” skates off with a hectic CGI-and-high-wire stunt sequence, when a freight truck from China topples while passing over Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma Bridge. A large incubator falls out, releasing and defrosting He Ying (Yen), a warrior in ancient Chinese armor. As he wings his way around Hong Kong’s night sky in over-the-top aerial shots, he’s mistaken for “the Terminator” by a groggy old squatter (Lo Hoi-pang). In fact, he’s more of a Urinator, as he relieves himself atop the poor sod’s hut.
A flashback traces He’s historical rupture back to 1621 A.D., when he served as an imperial guard of the Ming Court. He was sent by the Emperor to India, to obtain a time-travel device called “the Golden Wheel of Time,” which can only be activated by “Linga,” the god Shiva’s phallus in crystal form. On his way home, He is waylaid at the border by his fellow guards, Sao (Wang) and Nie Hu (Yu Kang), who charge him with colluding with Japanese pirates. An avalanche interrupts their showdown, putting everyone into deep freeze.
Back in the present, He befriends May (Eva Huang), a Hong Kong nightclub hostess, and follows her home. This is the point when the odd-couple chemistry and culture-clash comedy should take effect, but all we get is a gag in which He mistakes May’s toilet for a well. Meanwhile, the liaison between the two leads is predicated on a lot of squabbling, with the added irritant of May’s boisterously senile mother (Bonnie Wong).
“The Iceman Cometh” was driven by the hero’s quest to catch a serial rapist, with a determination that remained unshaken even after several centuries. The new adaptation reverses the plot to make He the hunted one, not just by Sao and Nie, but also by the traffickers (Simon Yam and Lam Suet) who smuggled these frosty relics across the border. The connections among these five take too long to emerge. In the original, the rapist’s psychopathic menace made him a strong foil for the righteous hero, while it’s never clear from Sao and Nie’s performances whether their characters are supposed to be villainous, misled or just clueless.
Instead of bringing the traffickers into escalating conflict with He, the film has them hang out with an Indian gang, discovering the thrills of girlie mags, curry chicken and club hostesses. This neither advances the plot nor provides comic relief, unless you think irony-free Japanese bashing and fake Indian accents are funny. A combat scene with a SWAT team at the midpoint descends into another toilet stunt that’s a stinker even by Hong Kong B-movie standards.
The bumpily paced and loosely structured screenplay by Lam Fung (whose dubious credits include the “Lan Kwai Fong” series) and two other scribes fatally delays He’s meeting with his nemeses. Much has been made of Wang’s background as a Shaolin disciple since he was 8, but when he finally spars with Yen, it only leaves one wondering why they didn’t fight earlier. The climactic sequence takes place back on Tsing Ma Bridge, realized with a combination of real location shooting and one-to-one models. The juxtaposition of medievalist jousting and horse-riding with rumbling car stunts rep a campy spectacle, but the 3D effects range from eye-popping to very rough at the edges. The ending tries to get viewers pumped for part two with sneak preview footage, but some won’t mind letting it stay in cold storage.
Yen never fully integrates the serious side of his role with the comically hapless situation he’s in. Huang’s shouty performance makes viewing tantamount to torture, and Cheung Sai-kit’s criminally tasteless costume design does her more disservice. Supporting perfs are rote, and other tech credits belie the purportedly generous budget.