27 December 2004 | Libretio
Lumbering, would-be spectacular
DR. WAI IN "THE SCRIPTURE WITH NO WORDS" (Mao Xian Wang)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Anamorphic)
Sound format: Dolby Digital
A huge disappointment from director Tony Ching (DUEL TO THE DEATH, "A Chinese Ghost Story"), this lumbering would-be spectacular - conceived as a light-hearted riff on the Indiana Jones subgenre - finds paperback author Jet Li ploughing all of his frustrations from a crumbling marriage to Rosamund Kwan into a work of fiction where his brave alter ego (a 1930's soldier of fortune, also played by Li) seeks a magical scripture and is thwarted at every turn by a villainous seductress (also Kwan) and her evil cohorts.
The half-hearted script (by Szeto Cheuk-hon, Sandy Shaw and Lam Wai-lun) lurches from one overblown set-piece to another in search of a worthwhile narrative, combining lackluster comedy and predictable action scenes in a failed attempt at a modern epic. However, the combat sequences - choreographed by Ching himself, aided and abetted by Ma Yuk-sing (CAT AND MOUSE) - are staged with typical cinematic bravado, but the formula is wearing a little thin, and the intrusive comic asides serve only to drain tension from the various confrontations between Good and Evil. Stunningly photographed in an uncredited scope format by veteran cinematographer Tom Lau (DRAGON INN, THE EAST IS RED), the film conjures a vivid period atmosphere, and there's a couple of outstanding set-pieces - including a spectacular train crash; Li's encounter with a couple of Sumo wrestlers (don't ask!); and the final showdown with villain Billy Chow - though the climactic visual effects are poor by western standards. Li and Kwan, reunited from their successful teaming in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, are attractive and lively, while Takeshi Kaneshiro (CHUNG KING EXPRESS) and Charlie Yeung (FALLEN ANGELS) are largely wasted in routine supporting roles.
Plagued by budgetary problems following a disastrous fire which destroyed $HK10 million worth of sets, producers sought to bolster the film's international fortunes by hiring Tsui Hark to direct additional footage for a re-edited export version which drops the modern day sequences and rearranges the narrative in linear fashion. It doesn't help much, but the filmmakers at least deserve points for trying.