Dragon Tiger Gate

So with a good night’s sleep behind me – well in truth I haven’t had one of those yet on this trip as jet lag has me in the grips of its ferocious teeth – I try and reconsider this messy overly indulgent film to see if I respect it more in the morning. No, not really. It all begins with the hair in this one. From that small detail all else trails behind it in a vacuous cloud. I suspect that the look of the film is based on the comic book from which the film was sourced, but the hair style of the three main characters is so distractingly pretentious that it takes on a life of its own. With their wind strewn locks carefully swept over their right eye like aging gigolos at a hen party, much of your thoughts throughout the film wander around the subject of their follicle splendor. The main one being what conditioner do they use, another being why the Donnie Yen character hasn’t changed his hair style since he was eight years old, but also wondering whether being able to see clearly with only one eye might explain why they get beaten by the bad guy so often – will a simple haircut save the day in the end? Most disappointingly however is that Ekin Cheng never shows up to join them in a contest of hair power. The film would have had a perfect ending if Ekin had shown up as a giant Godlike figure to bless their hair and the hair of their descendents forever to come.

With the same creative talents behind this as were behind Sha Po Lang (Wilson Yip directing and Donnie Yen doing almost everything else) I was hoping that they would build on what I thought made that such a terrific film – edge of your seat down home action choreography, tense straight ahead narrative and characters that seemed real and that you cared about. In particular the action received hosannas from many for going back to the basics – real hitting, real martial artists and a general lack of wire work and CGI. This film instead goes in the opposite direction – a muddled plot, characters that have no depth and action that is a very mixed bag. There are as I recall five action set pieces which alone should have carried the film – but they don’t because when it isn’t in motion this film dies in its tracks with some horrible maudlin drama and flashbacks to childhood that should be burnt at the stake. The action is generally solid but as the film progresses it goes from somewhat realistic and inventive to a tedious reliance in the final two scenes on CGI and wire work that made it feel like just another computer game brought to life.

The main problem here is sadly Donnie Yen. I know he has been an opportune target to pick on for some, but I have never really felt that way – I’ve never been a huge fan but at the same time I certainly admire his martial arts skills and have appreciated some of his action choreography – hell I have liked “Ballistic Kiss” which he directed and starred in. But he has never really been able to break in as a leading man simply because he has so little warmth and charisma and never seems particularly likable on the screen. He always appears like the guy who would be standing by himself at a party hoping someone would talk to him. All this is painfully evident in “Dragon Tiger Gate” that at times seems to be a valentine to his ego as he spends moment after moment posing for the camera as if he is in a shoot for Maxim. He punches, he poses, he kicks, he poses, he sits on the ledges of buildings and poses in profile – always of course with his hair hanging dramatically over his eye. Why doesn't he just become a catwalk male model and be done with it - it' s clearly his fantasy. It becomes more than a little laughable after a while and one might guess that Wilson Yip is either in love with Donnie or had no choice in the matter.

As to the plot of the film it really doesn’t matter because it made so little sense and had so little heart. Basically Donnie as Dragon Wong, Nicholas Tse as Tiger Wong and Shawn Yue as Turbo Shek all do some male bonding and kick some ass. There are a couple women thrown into the mix so as not to make it too totally male oriented, but they are strictly "flower vase" roles and add precious little to the proceedings. Yuen Wah also has a nice part and that is always welcome – and gets into the action as well. Not to dump water all over this film – I had just had higher expectations – it has excellent production values, good set design and some enjoyable action scenes that are well shot – in particular the first two in which Tse shows some surprisingly adept leg work and the one in which the camera takes a bird’s eye view in a tea shop as the action moves from room to room. The good news though is that the Weinsteins ended up with this disaster and they so deserve it and it should be collecting dust in a video store near you very soon.

My rating for this film: 4.0