Orthodox opinion holds that most (if not all) great movies are restricted to the Drama or Romance genres. During my exploration of East Asian cinema, I have discovered a massive amount of contradictory evidence to this commonly-held assertion: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, Korean Horror) and Cure (1997, Japanese Thriller) being the two most obvious examples, in addition to The Legend of Drunken Master (1994, Chinese Action), Battle Royale (2000, Japanese Action), and Fist of Legend (1994, Chinese Action). This brief list is a testimony that cinematic greatness is achieved in different ways, whether it be strong dramatic elements, horrific philosophical expositions, masterful storytelling, or action choreography. The bottom line is the one thing they all have in common: REMARKABLE ENTERTAINMENT VALUE. Sky High represents another title that achieves greatness like the aforementioned films achieve greatness, albeit in its own unique way.
Ryuhei Kitamura has had his disappointing films (Alive, Godzilla: Final Wars), but when he is "on his game" there is perhaps no one who delivers such a perfect combination of stylish camera-work and engaging sound. Sky High is the crème de la crème of cinematic flair. The wedding ceremony is a classic showcase that every film student should study with earnestness. Even the simplest of events – i.e., a girl crawling to her work desk after arriving late – are handled with such directorial precision that an astute viewer is immediately grabbed by the events occurring on screen. Virtually every action scene is preceded by ultra-cool character mannerisms supplemented with an excellent score. Sky High is a cornucopia of amazing images and sounds that puts most every other film to shame. This one is special for that contribution alone.
The storyline is based upon a set of supernatural rules. Major decisions by the characters must first consider the consequences inherent in their respective afterlives. Killing is not simply an act to end life, but instead is used to serve a specific eternal purpose. Thus, the ones who kill in this film also bear a tragic spiritual fate that others do not possess. The originality of Sky High is obvious in that it represents the act of killing as a form of self-sacrifice for the betterment of someone else. I can't think of another film that does this. It's a very unique and breathtaking play on an old concept.
Many movies have tried to bridge action and romance genres, but few have succeeded. Frequently, the action is bland and emotionless while the romance is undeveloped, but perhaps the most common (and ridiculous) flaw is that character action almost always contradicts the alleged romance of the lead characters. In Shinobi (2005) the wife promptly (and without hesitation) orders an ambush on her husband, which provides an excuse to start fighting, but at the same time nullifies any possible love that the viewer was supposed to believe existed. In The Bride With White Hair (1993) the man totally discounts the word of his alleged lover regarding a murder, which provides an excuse to start the final action scene, but at the same time invalidates their entire relationship. In other words, blending action and romance is just as difficult as creating an effective drama, and most attempts miss the mark quite badly.
Sky High, on the other hand, is the perfect example of internally consistent character action that maximizes the believability of the primary love relationship. Character action is not introduced merely to start fights, but instead represents a logical decision with reference to a specific lover. The primary love relationship is developed throughout the entirety of the film and culminates in the main character's change of philosophy, of which his love for his deceased wife serves as the primary catalyst. In like manner, the primary antagonist's motivations for evil is manfested from his deep love of his comatose wife. Even the deadly assassin shows her caring for the lead antagonist in her choosing to kill for him, thus sacrificing her immortal soul for his dream of being reunited with his lost love. So here we have a film that succeeds in introducing 3 separate love relationships that are consistent with character action, while most other action/romance movies fail to produce 1. Amazing!
Some have complained about the basic fight choreography. It is not kinetic, fast, or complex like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). Kitamura chose to ground most of the action with realistic sword maneuvers, similar to The Hidden Blade (2004), while adding a few supernatural elements along the way. Remarkably, the action is still very entertaining because of the character development behind it. The finale is exciting not because of how the swords are swung, but because a fairly normal girl has been entrusted to withstand the attacks of the lead antagonist while a demon is on the verge of escape and her husband may (or may not) be able to assist her in time. The preceding fight inside the temple is also engaging because the deadly assassin (who has easily carved her way thru just about everyone) has finally met her match. In this sense, Sky High is a different sort of action film that relies on situational excitement over choreographical complexity, and it works very well.
I'm sure that I'll be criticized for giving an action/romance like Sky High a rating of 10 out of 10, but in all honestly – I don't care. Sky High is simply the best action/romance film on the face of the planet. I dare someone to cite another similar film with an equal mastery of visual/audio technical skills, an equally original take on killing, similarly effective situational fighting, and character action that is perfectly consistent with the romantic elements.
Good luck to you on that challenge.