Drawing on King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic Dragon Inn, as well as his own (uncredited) 1992 remake, plus Yojimbo, Kagemusha, and any number of other cinematic touchstones, Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is the veteran director’s chance to let his imagination run riot in the context of a high-budget, 3D IMAX production. As such, it’s a film that offers a great deal, saturated with characters, plotlines, and, above all, set pieces, but it never seems overstuffed. Even when things don’t quite work, as in the occasional convolutions of the narrative, the movie feels generous, the result of a decision on Hark’s part to err on the side of offering the viewer too much rather than too little.
This generosity expresses itself in a flair for exhilaratingly showy filmmaking (signaled in the opening shot, a tour-de-force crane over a city port made visceral by the immersive 3D) and in his conception of community—or at least teamwork. Although the film’s nominal protagonist is Zhou Huai’an (Jet Li), a loner who tries to right wrongs perpetrated by both of the warring factions that vie for power in the story’s Imperial City of the distant past, he disappears from the screen for long stretches of time and, when he returns, has to team up with a motley assemblage of fighters in order to take down the wicked assassin Yu Huatian (Chen Kun) from the city’s west-side crew. That Zhou’s group, which includes the disgraced former innkeeper of the eponymous watering hole where most of the action unfolds, a Yu lookalike, and a pair of tattooed Tartars, is given as much screen time as Zhou, and as such nearly as much importance, shows Hark’s commitment to the idea of a group ethos that, despite the varied origins of the characters and the occasionally fractured alliances, becomes necessary to achieve their goal.
What exactly that goal is shifts throughout the course of Hark’s protean film, as one more plot twist pushes the narrative in fresh directions. At first concerned with tracking down a woman supposedly impregnated by an imperial leader and saving her from Yu’s merciless hands, the motives change when a cache of gold is rumored to be secreted underneath the inn. Part of the fun here is the instability of the narrative, mirroring the shifty desert landscape which threatens to obliterate the characters at any given moment in the form of an apocalyptic sand tornado.
The rest of the fun comes in the fight sequences, the most spectacular of which occurs when the sand tornado finally arrives and Zhou and Yu, held together by a chain, fight in the very center of the spiral. Hark’s action sequences are equal part CGI spectacle and choreographed real-world fight scene. In their reliance on computer effects and extensive editing, they’re clearly products of post-production, but there’s enough live fighting between the cuts to make the showdowns feel like far more than studio-concocted wizardry. Either way, when our two antagonists are trading blows inside the sandy funnel, it’s more than a little thrilling, and it speaks to Hark’s attempts to undermine some of the traditional notions of martial-arts narratives that this late-film one-on-one showdown isn’t the last word. Only by coming down from the skies and joining up with his colleagues in a sequence that feels purposefully anticlimactic is Zhou able to finally bring down his antagonist.