Film Review: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

Soldiers and rebels battle over a lost city's treasure in a giddy, unhinged updating of a martial-arts cult favorite.

Swords aren't the only things that fly in the latest Tsui Hark film. His first film in 3D IMAX, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is an eye-popping, at times baffling action extravaganza that centers around a deadly desert outpost during the Ming Dynasty. Filled with dazzling set-pieces and loony heroics, the film is a blast to watch—if you can figure out what's going on.

A prologue explains how two secret and warring police forces led by eunuchs wrested control of China from the corrupt court. The East branch, a sort of FBI, is prone to executing local officials on the spot. The West, led by Yu Huatian (Chen Kun), is even more vicious. Yu orders the death of Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), a pregnant maid who escaped from the court.

Rebels keep chipping away at the eunuchs' power, in particular Zhao Huaia (Jet Li), a master swordsman first seen toying with an East official at a public execution. Another rebel disguised as Zhao spirits Su away after she is captured by West soldiers.

Both rebels and soldiers make their way to Dragon Inn, run by thieves for thieves, just as a menacing sandstorm erupts. West soldiers reach a stalemate with Tartar robbers led by the feisty female Buludu (Gwei Lun Mei). They are joined by another woman crook, Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), who is traveling with the hapless ladies' man Wind Blade (Chen Kun in a dual role). It turns out that Wind Blade looks just like Yu Huatian, giving the crooks an edge as they search for an entrance to an ancient buried city filled with treasure.

Double-crosses and secret identities multiply as Yu and his soldiers march toward the inn. Su's protector turns out to be Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), a woman once in love with the real Zhao, while Su herself has a hidden agenda that includes slicing her enemies with golden threads.

All the plot twists and reversals are fun at first, and Hark delivers them with his customary whirlwind pacing and black humor. But the narrative keeps opening up new strands without resolving its potentially strongest points. Much is made of a booby-trapped maze, but it barely slows anyone down. For all their purported history, when Zhao and Ling finally meet, it feels anticlimactic.

Hark's typically robust visuals are enhanced here by outstanding 3D, overseen by Avatar's visual-effects supervisor Chuck Comisky. The film is full of arrows, spears and even logs that hurtle straight toward the camera, but what's even more impressive is how well martial-arts stunts transfer to 3D. And when Hark stages them in constricted spaces, the kicks, leaps and spins become even more effective.

King Hu's original Dragon Gate Inn helped define the wuxia genre back in 1967. Twenty years ago Hark wrote and produced a dazzling remake, Dragon Inn, that climaxed with the inn's destruction in a fire. More an overhaul than a sequel or remake, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate adds complex, unpredictable characters to the mix. Gwei Lun Mei's tattooed Tartar is especially impressive, while Zhou Xun continues Hark's fascination with cross-dressing women.

It's a shame the film eventually veers off into Indiana Jones territory. But even during its preposterous finale, which includes a swordfight inside a tornado, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is never less than entertaining.