Film: The Lost Bladesman
UK Release date: 8th August 2011
Director: Felix Chong & Alan Mak
Starring: Donnie Yen, Andy On, Wen Jiang, Betty Sun, Siu-hou Chin
Genre: Martial arts/Fantasy/Action/Mystery
Running time: Tbc
Reviewer: Adam Wing
It’s that time of the month again; the hardest working action hero in Hong Kong is back in business, doing what he does best in the name of entertainment. Infernal Affairs writer-directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong stand in the shadows, hoping to bring Romance of the Three Kingdoms back to life with their latest assault on the senses, The Lost Bladesman. Donnie Yen serves as both action director and star, boasting solid support from the likes of Betty Sun, Andy On, Nie Yuan and the screen-munching Jiang Wen.
Guan Yu (Donnie Yen) is a historic figure known for unparalleled bravery, supreme honour and unwavering loyalty. That would be Donnie Yen then, complete with chin stroking pointy beard and toughness aplenty. In the final years of the Eastern Han dynasty, the Prime Minister Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) is so powerful even the young Emperor (Wang Bo Chieh) looks up to him. When the Emperor's uncle and future Shu king Liu Bei (Alex Fong) is defeated in battle by Cao's forces, sworn brother Guan Yu is left to protect his family held captive by Cao. Guan - ever loyal to Liu - resists Cao's request to join the cause, but Cao was never one to give up so easily, not when there’s a war to be won.
The shirtless wonder keeps his armour intact on this one, and we have to wait a good forty minutes before he dispenses with the stupid facial hair and resorts to meaningful posturing. The problem with every new Donnie Yen movie is this - when the world of action cinema is at one man’s mercy - it’s very hard to go in without high expectations. The Lost Bladesman takes an eternity to find its feet, bogged down by waves of meandering dialogue and exposition. Familiar themes of loyalty, betrayal and plucky heroism are present and correct, but when they’re delivered in a manner so unashamedly underwhelming, it’s hard to believe that Guan Yu is the only person stroking his chin in bemusement.
Yen’s performance is subdued to say the least, hampered by cut-out character traits offering little beyond obligatory heroism and righteousness. The Ip Man series suggests that Donnie can do more than just beat people up, serving up a restrained performance that shows signs of talent beyond epic displays of kick ass-ery. Don’t get me wrong, acting accolades are still a long way off and I doubt we’ll ever see him convince as the male lead in a rom-com, but there are definite signs of emotional range and depth. The Lost Bladesman is a step back in terms of acting credentials, but we’ll put that down to weak scripting and muddled sensibilities. He still kicks ass of the highest order, but Alan Mak and Felix Chong will test your patience long before that.
Every cloud has a silver lining though, and Jiang Wen’s scene-stealing turn as Cao Cao is the films much needed anchor. His charismatic performance provides the film with gravitas, at least until Donnie’s feet take centre stage, and in Cao we have the films one and only two-dimensional character. The first act is weighed down by too many characters, confusing structure and mind-bending exposition. The remainder of the film focuses on Cao’s admiration of Guan, with time put aside for romantic subplots and heartfelt sincerity. Neither of which convince, made worse by the fact that Betty Sun barely gets a look in as the object of Guan’s desire.
If there’s one thing you can rely on though, it’s Donnie’s ability to deliver action spectacle. When they do come, the fight sequences are almost worth the price of admission alone. More restrained than your typical Yen-fu perhaps - we can blame that on an over-ambitious tone - but Donnie brings much needed wonder to a film lacking in true conviction. The only misfire occurs when Mak and Chong get involved, stepping away from one potentially bruising battle sequence in order to infuse a sense of style. I appreciate the attempt to add artistic flair, but come on guys, do we really want to hear Donnie Yen kick ass from behind closed doors? A neat directorial flourish in another world maybe, but cut to the chase will you, this is a Donnie Yen picture. Let him do his thing, that’s why we booked the tickets in the first place.
The Lost Bladesman takes an eternity to find its feet, saved from the clutches of despair by a charismatic lead performance from Jiang Wen. Donnie looks bored for the most part, struggling to find depth in a one-dimensional character that has little impact beyond quick feet and pointy beard. The blame lies with lazy writing and poor execution, at least until the action kicks in. That’s when the real Donnie Yen makes his mark, and we all know what to expect from there.