Within about five minutes of this film I’m convinced I need to watch more Tsui Hark. I enjoyed Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame despite some missteps and I think this film does a lot to address the problems I had with that film.
For one, it’s framed as a historical conflict between the People’s Liberation Army and a gang of bandits in the icy north of China. Framing it in the real world means less time needs to be spent on world-building and more time can be spent on action and the game of cat and mouse.
The film opens with a fantastic action sequence with a crazy rhythm of long takes edging to the point of almost being unbearable punctuated by a series of quick shots that are slammed together at just the right speed to be comprehensible but concise. It’s thrilling action at its finest.
But then the film slows down into a story of deception and infiltration when one of the PLA members infiltrates the bandits in order to destroy them from within. It’s here the film showcases the great strength of character and storytelling prowess.
For one, the dialogue here is fantastic. It’s witty and sly and characters often go on these crazy monologues where one slip of the tongue could bring everything crashing down around them. It’s a war of words and just as exciting to watch as any action sequence.
It also does a great job of making the audience connect with characters. Given the broad array of players, the film doesn’t have a lot of time to make each character leave an impression. That being said, when the action starts, one realizes how dearly one feels about some of these characters. Short, small moments do a lot to make these more than just interchangeable gunmen (and women).
The film’s weak point is that it’s ambitions often exceed it’s technical ability. The CGI here is often weak, especially some of the slow motion sequences. But these moments of weakness are exactly because the film is willing to push the bounds of an action scene to be as fantastic and exciting as possible.
It’s a testament to the film’s craft that its long runtime isn’t felt. the film breezes by with tons of wonderful, hilarious, dramatic and sad moments. It’s gripping from scene to scene and it never lets up for a moment. I desperately need to watch more Tsui Hark.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing