Daniel Lee’s best-known work before 2008 was Jet Li’s dated – yet brilliant – action adventure Black Mask. Since then he has made quite the niche for himself in the period action epic sub-genre. Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon was his first star-studded effort, and even though it will never be considered a classic, there’s a lot to recommend beyond the presence of Andy Lau and Maggie Q.
What it does do it does very well, albeit in a solid, unspectacular, commercial kind of way. 14 Blades is the better picture, but then again, that might be down to my love of all things Donnie. Vicki Zhao, Donnie Yen and a former Miss Hong Kong sporting a metal whip. What it lacks in substance and depth, it makes up for in eye candy and action.
A great man once sang, “A little less conversation, a little more action please”. I doubt very much he had White Vengeance in mind when he sang it, but the Elvis hit did run through my mind occasionally during Daniel Lee’s overly talky action drama. I have to be honest here. Period action epics are beginning to bore me.
They seem to be cropping up all over the place. In fact I’m pretty sure if I had to partake in a history of China exam I would score top marks, albeit from a highly dramatised filmmakers perspective. Having said that, it would take a really special movie to impress me these days. That or the presence of Donnie Yen, and somewhat disappointingly, the shirtless wonder doesn’t make an appearance in this one.
In case you’ve been neglecting your Chinese history of late, Daniel Lee’s cinematic arse-twitcher takes us back in time to the Banquet at Hongmen. In the final years of the Qin dynasty, China is in chaos, and whoever takes control of the Qin capital Xianyang will effectively become Simon Cowell – or just plain emperor to some. Xiang Yu is the most likely to succeed, but Liu Bang has become a reluctant contender too.
He knows he’s no match for Xiang Yu, so he pledges allegiance instead. It’s not all plain sailing of course, Xiang Yu's chief strategist Fan Zeng (Anthony Wong) recognises the danger and decides to set a trap. Despite being aware of the situation, Liu Bang’s loyal advisor Zhang Liang (Zhang Hanyu) urges him to attend the banquet anyway, or risk being crushed by Xiang Yu’s army.
It’s all very complicated and there’s a lot of exposition to wade through, but Lee injects his tale with compensatory – not to mention well orchestrated – action sequences. The special effects are over ambitious, but the close quarter combat is well worth a look, even if it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Charismatic performances are few and far between, but pantomime theatrics are positively thriving, especially from the once great Anthony Wong; with White Vengeance he’s all raised eyebrows and overreaching sentiment. It’s an ill-advised performance from the big man.
Andy On and Crystal Liu make up the numbers, stretching an overly generous running time beyond breaking point. Liu suffers the worst fate, playing the part of ‘perfunctory love interest’. Unfortunately, her scenes are all soaring soundtracks and lashings of snow. There are times when White Vengeance sets sail, but only when it comes to sweeping grandeur and belting fight scenes. The rest of the picture – of which there is plenty – is made up of dreary exposition, gloomy characters and lacklustre storytelling. An engaging premise is swept under the carpet in favour of meaningless romance, relentless deliberating and pedestrian story arcs.
You’ll struggle to care as the plot takes shape. The action sequences lose punch as the film progresses. Monotony sinks in as the ship capsizes. Daniel Lee is unable to make amends; epic storytelling fading away as quickly as Fan Zeng’s sight. White Vengeance is at its best when it charges into battle, delivering a cascade of well-choreographed fight sequences. It’s not nearly as satisfying when it comes to storytelling, drama and depth. If you’re in it for Anthony Wong, be warned, panto season starts early in China. Some 2000 years early. AW