Bottom Line: A martial arts fantasy with advanced 3D effects and two-dimensional characters.
By Maggie Lee
HONG KONG — A tempest of CGI clouds the vision of “Storm Warriors II” but is not enough to smoke screen the action-fantasy’s lame plot and appropriation of Hollywood style, especially the grainy texture and buff males of “300″ and the production design of the third “Mummy” film. Its December release recorded a moderate take of about $1.8 million in Hong Kong and about $6.6 million in China over a three-week period. Followers of the careers of directors Oxide and Danny Pang (”Bangkok Dangerous”) may be tempted to catch this, but there is not enough authentic physical combat to satisfy the typical Asian genre film audience.
“Storm Warriors II” is a sequel to the 1998 Hong Kong mega-hit “Storm Riders,” which made memorable screen renditions of the original comic’s heroes — free-spirited but righteous Wind (Ekin Cheng) and cool but competitive Cloud (Aaron Kwok). Each action set piece in the first edition derived its own flavor from being choreographed to mirror the characters’ personalities and dramatize their rivalry.
By comparison, the sequel feels bland as it dispenses with the characters’ backstories, and abstracts the serpentine plot into a trite battle between good and evil. Even a 2008 animated version delivered a more polished storyline.
Wind and Cloud, played by the original Cheng-Kwok duo, are united against Lord Godless (Simon Yam), the wicked invader of China. After subjugating the Emperor (Patrick Tam) and the realm’s best martial artists, Godless and son Heart (Nicolas Tse) embark on an expedition to loot a dragon spinal cord on which the fate of China hangs.
Wind and Cloud seek the hermit-swordsman Lord Wicked’s guidance on how to defeat the invulnerable Godless. Wicked tells Wind to temporarily surrender himself to the Evil Path as a shortcut to enhance power. Wind is interrupted mid-way through his training and loses all reason. Cloud is taxed with foiling Godless’ conspiracy (with help from mentor Nameless), while keeping the possessed Wind out of trouble.
Eleven years after “Storm Riders” broke new ground in Hong Kong cinema for its use of computer graphics in martial arts choreography, “Storm Warriors II” has upgraded the technical razzle-dazzle. The 3-D effects are indeed eye-catching — the twister of swords conjured up by Nameless in the beginning simultaneously salutes and reinvents the low-tech, hand-drawn cartoons of flying daggers that characterize 1960s Hong Kong swordplay flicks.
The Pang brothers draw on their forte as colorists to create a universe of striking contrasts that distinguishes the film from recent martial arts epics of gritty realism. Most effective is when images are drenched of all but a few primary colors — blazing reds, frosty whites and luminous blacks — sharply toned to give additional dimension to human figures and key objects.
However, images that are at first atmospheric, like the curlicues of black-and-white smoke, lose their impact when rehashed in every major scene. There is also an overblown clunkiness to the action design, which does not correspond to the light, fluid quality of winds and clouds emphasized in the comic’s illustrations: The heroes’ opponents don’t just die; they crumble into black, chunky rumble. Caves, monuments and boulders explode with a crash-bang-wollop.
That aside, the real problem is that despite having a succession of large scale fight scenes, the lack of continuity does little to escalate the tension. The final mano-a-mano between Wind and Cloud lasts over half an hour, but the rapid turnover of slow motion, freeze frame and extreme close-ups of startled facial expressions only prolongs more or less the same physical moves.
While the film has assembled some of the most dashing male stars in Hong Kong cinema, they are only required to stand in cool poses with billowing manes. Charlene Choi and Tang Yan, who play Wind’s and Cloud’s love interests respectively, function as mere accessories. There is arguably more engaging human interaction in a computer game.
Opened Dec. 10: Hong Kong and China
Production Companies: Universe Entertainment Ltd, in association with Sil-Metropole Organization and Chengtian Entertainment
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng, Simon Yam, Kenny Ho, Charlene Choi, Tang Yan, Nicholas Tse, Patrick Tam Yiu-man
Director-producers: Oxide Pang, Danny Pang
Based on the comic by: Ma Wing Shing
Executive producers: Daneil Lam, Ching Suet Ying
Production designer: Yee Chung Man
Costume designers: Yee Chung Man, Dora Ng
Editors: Curan Pang, Danny Pang
Sales: Universe Film Distribution Co.
No rating, 110 minutes