Gleefully trashing narrative norms along with most of the production design, “Dragon Tiger Gate” is a hugely enjoyable, explosively staged ride into chopsockydom. A rare manga adaptation that honestly reflects its comic book origins instead of using them for grand artistic allegories, pic will chime with Asian action fans prepared to go with the flow. Though very different from the tough, tenebrous “SPL,” on which star Donnie Yen and helmer Wilson Yip previously collabbed, this should strong-arm healthy biz in occidental arenas, with muscular ancillary down the line. Picture opened strong in Asia in late July, and a sequel is already planned.
In the same way as the recent (and much under-rated) “UltraViolet,” film draws the viewer into its manga universe by morphing — during the opening credits and early scenes — from manga art, via stylized CGI-heavy imagery, to live action.
Setting is a temporally vague Hong Kong (pic was actually shot in mainland China) that mixes contempo street fashion, traditional architecture and dystopian cityscapes in the same way as ’90s classics like “Saviour of the Soul.”
Pic opens with a rapid-fire history of Dragon Tiger Gate, a martial arts school dedicated to street justice. Some of the remaining history of the founders’ scions, Dragon (Yen) and Tiger (Nicholas Tse), peppers the later action in tinted flashbacks.
Catalyst to the story, and initiator of the first, eye-popping set piece, is young charmer Tiger who ends up in possession of a drug-smuggling gang’s sacred icon, the Lousha Plaque, during a brawl in a restaurant. Plaque’s guardian, gangster Ma Kun (Shaw Bros. vet Chen Kuan-tai), lets Tiger go temporarily, as does Ma’s main henchman, who is none other than Dragon. (Kids were separated during childhood, and Dragon has ended up on the dark side.)
All the signatures of Yen’s usual whiplash style — thesp also did action chores — are apparent in the restaurant set-to, as is the film’s neat use of CGI and wirework to enhance rather than dominate the fights. Ditto a subsequent brawl, during which Dragon retrieves the plaque and the third male protag, nunchaku-wielding Turbo (Shawn Yue), is introed.
No H.K. actioner in recent memory has packed so much visual invention into so few opening reels, from flying stunts never seen before to simple but effective camera gymnastics (such as following a fight along corridors from above).
Main thrust of subsequent plot is Tiger’s efforts to get Dragon onto the side of Good and eventually bring down masked super-villain Shibumi (stuntman Yu Kang, voiced by Louis Koo in Cantonese prints), who’s head of the Lousha Gang and a sucker for mano a mano face-offs. Shibumi’s appearances in the third act, climaxing in a set-wrecking finale, are worth the price of admission alone.
Pic spends very little time on its characters’ emotional lives — the sequel will reportedly fix that — but compensates with a light insouciance and sense of youthful fun that’s equally infectious. Above all, “Dragon Tiger Gate” is all about pumping action and street-cred style — bodies crashing into inanimate objects and long, male tresses dancing in the breeze — with Yip and Yen tipping their hats to old style chopsockies en route.
His face largely covered by hair, 43-year-old Yen just about manages to play a character who’s meant to be about 10 years younger, credibly standing alongside youngsters Tse and Yue. Mainland actresses Dong Jie, as Tiger’s love interest, and Li Xiaoran, as Shibumi’s henchwoman (not in the original manga), make the most of smaller roles. Both are revoiced in Canto prints.
Tech package is highly honed, and editing as tight as a drum. Propulsive score by Japanese fusion-rock musician Kenji Kawai is strictly utilitarian.