The 3D is terrific in “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate,” but helmer Tsui Hark’s costume actioner — the first Chinese-lingo movie shown in the stereoscopic Imax format — is let down by two-dimensional characters. Toplining an underused Jet Li, this reworking of King Hu’s “Dragon Gate Inn” (1966) and the Tsui-produced “New Dragon Gate Inn” (1992) scored an impressive $22 million opening weekend gross following December 15 domestic release. Modest figures in simultaneous Australian rollout suggests biz beyond Asia will be just OK. North American distribution details are yet to be announced.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate
“Swords” has notched mighty numbers on 59 giantscreens locally; at regular venues, the pic was narrowly beaten for the top B.O. spot by Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War,” launched the same day.
Action centers initially on Zhou Huai’an (Li), a freedom fighter opposing corrupt eunuchs holding power during China’s Ming dynasty. Following a knockout opening sequence in which he and his small band of followers rescue alleged traitors facing certain death at a shipyard, Zhou disappears for long stretches while Tsui introduces a lengthy roster of characters whose paths eventually cross.
Chief among these is Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), a female warrior who has rescued Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), a palace maid marked for death after being impregnated by the emperor. Charged with eliminating Su is Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), a regional boss who tracks the women to Dragon Gate Inn, a rough-and-tumble hostel in the middle of the desert where human flesh is on the menu.
Built over a city of treasures accessible only during a sandstorm that’s about to make its once-every-60-years appearance, the establishment has attracted adventurers including the roughneck crew of Mongol princess Buludu (Gwei Lun-mei), female bandit Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), and her partner-in-crime, Wind Blade (also Chen), a dead ringer for Yu. What follows is a sometimes confusing series of deceptions, double-crosses and barroom brawls as Wind Blade and Yu impersonate each other and Zhou re-enters the picture ahead of the climactic CGI sandstorm.
With the assistance of “Avatar’s” 3D visual effects supervisor, Chuck Comisky (credited as supervising stereographer), Tsui stages any number of marvelous action sequences. But what’s glaringly absent is any character depth or significant emotional content for auds to embrace. Some sort of “Crouching Tiger,”-style connection is hinted at between warriors Zhou and Ling, but their reunion fails to produce sparks of any kind.
Given little screentime and handed light duties, action-wise, top-billed Li is overshadowed by Zhou Xun’s steely femme fighter and Taiwanese thesp Gwei, who steals the show as the tattoo-faced, tough-talking tribal leader.
With hardly a primary color in his palette, lenser Choi Sung-fai creates splendidly burnished imagery of deserts and atmospheric interiors of the heavily wooded inn. A rousing, old-fashioned orchestral score by Wu Wai-lap, Li Han-chiang and Gu Xin rounds out a topnotch tech package.