After reigning as a best-selling, multifaceted media franchise for two decades, a live-action Dynasty Warriors movie has finally joined the ranks of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Released internationally by Netflix, the film is based on the series of hack ‘n’ slash games where you run around a massive battlefield as a litany of heightened interpretations of Chinese historical figures, extravagantly beating the asses of entire enemy armies. Set in an era important to both Chinese history and literature (as said history inspired the formative 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Dynasty Warriors leans as hard into military mythologizing as it does its rowdy crowd warfare. An earnest set-up for this epic era of China’s past collides head-on with a world where magic axes shoot electricity and horses slide sideways, Bollywood-style, under falling obstacles. Writer/director Roy Chow’s managed both straight drama and big action in the past, but the sheer scope and weight of the source materials bury Dynasty Warriors’ moments of fun.
While the story encompasses political plots, military maneuvering and legendary weapons, things mostly boil down to three utterly dignified, statue-like heroes—Liu Bei (Tony Yang), Guan Yu (Han Geng) and Zhang Fei (Justin Cheung, in terrible Tropic Thunder-level brownface)—trying to overthrow a usurping warlord they once saved, while Cao Cao (Wang Kai), a ruthless minor-official-turned-would-be-assassin, is on the run for trying to take down the same man. They navigate forests and throne rooms, every once in a while venturing to an exotic Zoom background filled with magic and bioluminescence. Their conflicting ideologies collide as they join forces and eventually square off against the warlord’s main general, the unstoppable combatant Lü Bu (Louis Koo, whose relatively complex performance easily stands out from the cast).
Sounds like a lot of plot, right? Dynasty Warriors addresses this with long paragraphs of text over screensavery drone shots or hilariously fast-forwarded story beats explained in voiceover: One moment sees the injured Cao Cao being tended to by a caring peasant woman, only to reveal a few seconds later that she turned him over to the baddies for the bounty—and all we get by way of explanation is a hard cut to that same woman lasciviously stroking a chest full of gold.
While these moments are amusingly corny, they’re sadly sparse compared to the long and circuitous explanations of how different fighters fit within the armies, power structures and family ties of the time. Worse, all its directorial energy is preserved for when these guys swing big poleaxes around to mow down hundreds of hopeless grunts. Even the actors seem to get bored with the discussions. Performances here are perfunctory: Either completely stoic or gruffly over-the-top, with personalities shallow enough to be conveyed through a fighting style. The movie doesn’t ask for much more, though Wang’s sinister laugh needs a lot of work, as it understands that this is a movie of broad strokes—especially the Dragon Ball Z-like repetition of phrases like “unmatched power.” That might be because the dialogue was that way to begin with, or that it’s been simplified beyond meaning in the translation (for example, a massacre is followed by the weird deployment of the phrase “a friend in need is a friend indeed”). Whatever the case, it leaves its characters looking like they’re in an opera, fighting like they’re in a wuxia and speaking like they’re NPCs in their own story.
But when everyone shuts up, the electric guitars start wailing and the bad lightning effects start jumping around like a DIY metal video, Dynasty Warriors nears the blend of military melodrama and primal button-mashing satisfaction that makes the series so popular. Unfortunately, though the Lord of the Rings-esque scope isn’t inherently bad—with much of the staging replicating the feel of the games—the execution is. In trying to pull off these ambitiously large battles, Chow’s combat is so effect-heavy and intangible that it has similar problems to actual videogames: The camera clips through the ground, digital extras can easily be seen repeating the same animations and few assets (horses, fire, shockwaves, arrows, people, the ground) actually look like they belong in the same universe, let alone that they’re interacting with each other.
The relative competence of the one-on-one fights—and the often creative, amusing ideas attempted in the larger battles, like alchemically-enhanced soldiers spurred to such bloodlust that they start gnawing on a galloping horse’s leg—make it clear that Chow has something to offer when he’s not needing to patch over problems with distractingly subpar effects. Videogame movies could do much worse than Chow’s familiar brand of cheese—especially when the swirling fight choreography adds in some punchlines of its own. Soldiers deploy some 300-style shield formations, otherworldly blades fling people into the air like Sauron hacking away at wimpy humans and, in the film’s best moment, a miniboss henchman decapitates opponent after opponent, sending heads flying back to their home base like so many kicked field goals.
On a more practical level, Chow also stages and lights many of the interiors for adequately dramatic effect, and rarely seems to run out of ideas for where to put the camera (under a horse, in a dreamy GoPro close-up) or how to alter his film’s aesthetic (a hallucinatory fuchsia tint, a flame-and-mirror lighting scheme). But most of these efforts simply serve to whip Dynasty Warriors’ two hours ever onward, on a death march with editing so choppy it seems like it’s coming for our own necks as it tries its best to mince any remaining visual storytelling.
Sadly, that only seems fitting for a first-crack adaptation of the brawling, sprawling games. Trying to do too much with too little in both its action and drama, Dynasty Warriors either blazes through developments to get to important anecdotes or slows time to a crawl as conversations unfurl like loading screens, which fills the narrative with non sequitur, qinggong-like leaps from topic to topic. Sure, we get flashes of grand romance, betrayal, corruption, friendship and loyalty, but any depth to these qualities is missing—maybe it’s coming later as downloadable content?
Director: Roy Chow
Writers: Roy Chow
Stars: Louis Koo, Carina Lau, Wang Kai, Tony Yang, Han Geng, Justin Cheung, Gulnazar, Ray Lui
Release Date: July 1, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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