The Flying Swords of Dragon’s Gate
by Richard von Busack
It’s two swift, magnificent, gorgeously colored and semi-coherent hours of wuxia by the master Tsui Hark. The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (tickets and showtimes here) is a remake/sequel of Tsui’s 1992 remake of King Hu’s kung-fu masterpiece Dragon Inn (1966). Hu’s original is perhaps the only kung-fu movie many a high-cinema fancier can name, thanks to this.
The scads of vicious secret police blighting the land in the Ming dynasty are countered by a daring outlaw (Jet Li), who introduces himself to an evil mandarin like so: “My name is Zhao Huai’an. But you don’t need to remember it. I’ll carve it on your cursed head so everyone will know who killed you.”
After a shipboard fight (note the startling lion figurehead on the boat that seems to be staring the waves into submission) the action shifts to the “black inn” itself. A shamble on the edge of a turmeric-colored desert, it was rebuilt after the fire in the last of these films. Though the original management has fled, it’s still an ogre’s hangout. A group of plug-uglies arrive, including the beguiling Lun-Mei Kwai, as a facially-tattooed Tartar princess called “The Grim Reaper”; she adds Whedonism to the typical swashbuckling modesty of Li and his swordsman allies. The swordsmanship is, if anything, too stylized to be grisly: Zhao has his weapon at the throat of the mandarin in question, and animated boards fly up and box up the villain’s head, which we next see arriving at his master’s palace as briskly as if UPS had sent it.
It’s baroque for certain, compared to the leaner era from which it arrived. Seeing the previous films would have helped identify who’s who. But, as in the old days of Hong Kong cinema, it’s not really necessary to have seen the previous story. The wirework and harmonious blend of CG and stunt work, up to the final fight in the booby-trapped palace webbed with trip wires: all are only going to look better in IMAX and 3D.