DYNASTY WARRIORS (2021) review

An adaptation of the Japanese hack-and-slash video game of the same title that has spanned 24 years and 15 consoles, Roy Chow’s Dynasty Warriors was shot in 2017 but dragged its feet through post-production for 4 years due to financial issues, finally landing with a thud at the Chinese box-office, with an online release following less than a week later. Like the video game, it follows the epic events of Luo Guanzhong’s fundamental novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms while infusing it with fantasy tropes: no mythical creatures, but near-superhuman heroes wielding weapons infused with supernatural energy. And so the future lords and generals of the Three Kingdoms era: Liu Bei (Tony Yang), Guan Yu (Han Geng), Zhang Fei (Justin Cheung), and their future enemy Cao Cao (Wang Kai), as they lead the resistance against imperial usurper Dong Zhuo (Lam Suet) and his undefeated general, Lv Bu (Louis Koo).

Dynasty Warriors is a true feathered fish: an attempt at a balancing act between honoring Luo Guanzhong’s semi-historical epic source novel, and bringing to live-action life the over-the-top fantasy action of the video games. It is not without its strong assets: the sweeping New Zealand vistas (Middle Kingdom or Middle-Earth?), Tse Chungto’s gorgeous red-and-gold photography, and lavish production design from Liu Jingping; these are mostly givens for high-profile Chinese epics, but to be savored nonetheless. Yet beyond these visual strengths, it is a narratively clunky, brazenly cheesy spectacle. While reasonably faithful to several chapters of Luo’s book, it rushes through them to stay under 120 minutes, turning character-defining tragedies into listless jokes, such as when Cao Cao slaughters an entire innocent household by mistake, after hearing them talking about slaughtering a pig – and thinking he’s the pig they’re talking about…

And the tonal shifts are simply too jarring and clumsy when stately history scored with Miklos Rozsa swoop by Yusuke Hatano, turns to electric guitar riffs (the video games’ music) over power battles full of primitive CGI (which some might in all fairness see as a loving faithfulness to the video games). Still, hundreds of CGI extras flailing in a limited range of motions as one or two of the leads strike poses is a sorry sight. Even a more self-contained scene, where fearsome fighter Hua Xiong mows down warrior after warrior in single combat, until he’s beheaded by Guan Hu (one of the most famous scenes in the Three Kingdoms narrative), is edited to shreds. And the final fight between Lv Bu and the heroic trio of Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei is a jerky, unwatchable jumble of CGI. Action director Dion Lam may have done a fine job, but Roy Chow made sure we’ll never know.

The uneven cast doesn’t help matters. Louis Koo rises head and shoulders above the rest of the cast with a toweringly charismatic performance, both very minimal (some smoldering stares, a few smirks), and effortlessly iconic. Wang Kai is excellent as a fresh-faced, swaggering Cao Cao, and shares fine chemistry with a solid Tony Yang as Liu Bei. And it’s a joy to see Lam Suet in an intimidating role (he deserves so much more than endless fatso roles where he’s the butt of every joke), bringing wryness, menace and just a hint of buffoonery to Dong Zhuo. Ray Lui doesn’t get much to do as Yuan Shao, but looks great doing it, while Carina Lau makes a classy cameo as the Master of the Sword Castle (aka Miss Exposition). On the other hand, Justin Cheung looks absurd with a fake pot-belly as Zhang Fei, Gulnazar is glassy-eyed and inconsequential as Diao Chan (with whom Lv Bu falls in loves like she’s the first woman he ever encountered) and Han Geng is a head-scratching piece of miscasting as the formidable Guan Hu: scrawny, charisma-challenged, reedy-voiced, he looks like an overgrown teenager cosplaying as Guan Hu.

Much like in his recent would-be franchise starters, Rise of the Legend and The Great Detective, Roy Chow falls prey to two of his key flaws as a – nevertheless talented – director: derivativeness and franchise thirst. If Rise was a Christopher Nolan po-faced origin story, Detective a Guy Ritchie Sherlock wannabe, and Knockout all Sly Stallone boxing metaphors, Dynasty Warriors looks squarely to Zack Snyder’s brand of beefy, icon-carving, CGI-drenched mythologizing. And it wants sequels so much that it ends in a rapid succession of loose ends and cliffhangers – not a flaw in itself, and somewhat an inevitability when adpating a segment of the Three Kingdoms saga, but it’s a gamble that won’t pay off.

Long Story Short: Oscillating between brazenly cheesy and beautifully ornate, Dynasty Warriors is an entertaining mess, with its heart in the right place but narratively compromised by rushed storytelling and jarring tonal shifts, and marred by poor CGI and some odd casting choices. **

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6 Comments

  1. Two stars! :-P

    Honestly, this sounds like so many Chinese historical epics of late, it many ways one has to curse the rise of CGI for taking away the filmmakers ability to tell stories and not let them be usurped by the SFX.

    Reply
    • But has there been that many historical epics of late? After the post-Warolords/RedCliff surge of the first half of the 2010s, I’ve felt a bit of a drought. Though this film did call to my mind Hasi Chaolu’s dire (and fairly recent) Genghis Khan.

      Reply
      • This is true, but I tend to lump them in with many wushu films because of the period setting, although the difference is one focuses on political warfare, and the other martial arts and magic.

        Production and aesthetic wise they share many traits whilst the end result is both types often tend to collapse under the weight of their own bombast and sense of grandeur.

        Two films I recently reviewed that exemplifies this are Maoshan and The War Of Loong.

        Reply
        • Agreed. Gordon Chan’s God of War avoided many of these pitfalls, but unfortunately wasn’t financially very successful…

          Reply
  2. isjoni

     /  May 10, 2021

    han Geng is really miscast. how come they didn’t see that on production.

    Reply

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