Movie review: Seven Swords

Posted: March 17, 2011 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Seven Swords (2005 Mandarin Films & Eng Wah Dir. Tsui Hark)

This is a movie that should have been awesome, but fell short of that lofty goal. The reasons it should have been awesome are easy to see just from the people involved. Tsui Hark reinvigorated the Wuxia genre in the 90s, Donnie Yen is one of the biggest stars in HK cinema, the other actors are hardly unknowns, and it’s based on one of those books that I’m told is a favorite in Chinese culture. Of course, that’s maybe where things start to go wrong. The movie bears little resemblance to the book in question. Much of the story telling is put on the shoulders of characters that weren’t written to hold such weight, and the action is underwhelming. However, all that said, there are things to like in this movie as we’ll see. This isn’t a movie without merit, and some might look beyond the weaknesses and really fall in love with this thing.

It’s like if Frank Miller made a kung-fu movie.

The movie has a fairly simple premise, at least to begin with. The Emperor has decided that martial arts are to be banned and anyone found practicing should be beheaded. Strong stuff perhaps, but this is the start of the Qing Dynasty which… was unstable. Let’s leave it at that for the moment. I don’t want to get into a lengthy history lesson, which would side track us, but suffice to say the jianghu wasn’t with the new power and the new power wanted to get rid of them. This would actually be find and dandy, nothing to complain about. The Chinese understand that killing people who might possibly get in your way is part of the deal when setting up empires. The problem is that one general, named Fire-Wind, takes it too far. He and his nameless and mostly personality-less hench-people wipe out everybody they come across, because the bounty of three hundred silver a head is worth the effort. That’s the problem, Fire-Wind isn’t playing by the rules, he’s just slaughtering everyone and that’s not so okay. There will be heroes, and then the heroes will have something to say about this. We’re less than three minutes in and we understand that this is more or less the plot.

It’s like a shot out of Ridley Scott’s fever dream.

The opening action scene is actually pretty cool. It’s a mindless slaughter, but there is some emotion installed before it begins. We’re given to understand the baddies are corrupt, that they’re screwing the system and the people and in the second half of the opening scene, we even get a good guy doing some good guy stuff. The visuals in the opening scene are striking and the action is well choreographed. The problem is that this situation will not be maintained. Some of the later action scenes are sloppy, less interesting to look at and executed with something of a lazy demeanor. However, that’s for later, for now we’ve got a good action scene and an old man as a hero. You’re going to have to forgive me if I’m a bit slapdash with people’s names. Chinese names are always a bit hard for me to keep straight, so I might just use descriptions like ‘The Old Man’ instead. The old man comes to a place called The Martial Village, having been injured and brought by a young girl. Some people recognize him as a killer from the old dynasty, who is now trying to make good for his old crimes. Instead of letting him die at the hands of the elders, the young girl and another villager sneak the old man away.

He learned that look from his cat.

While on their way, the girl, the old man and the man from the village go to Mount Heaven to ask for help. They reason, as far as I can understand, that if they offer a bowl of rice a day, they can get some badasses to come help the village. They also reason that I they only get six, then one will probably stick to the group and come anyway… no, wait, that’s a different movie with seven swordsmen defending a small village in Asia against raiders. Actually, to be honest, that’s more or less where the similarities end. Well, there is a similar run time, but never mind that right now. Fire-Wind is a much more rounded out character and complete villain than anything in that other seven guys and a town movie. Sadly though the seven swordsmen don’t all have the character detail from the other movie. We’ll get into that later though, for now let’s get back to the story.

CRAP! The armor’s too heavy, I’m gonna fall over!

Our girl from the village, named Wu, the boy named Han and the old man manage to make contact with the badasses from Mt. Heaven. After a bit of cajoling, they convince the four guys from the mountain to help them. Now I know whatr you’re thinking, that’s only four swords, well the old man of the mountain who has trained the four swords men gives Han, Wu and the old man each a sword of their own to make seven. Each sword has it’s own special power, and strength and probably is meant to have a character of it’s own. The problem is that no matter how interesting each sword might be, they’re just tools in the movie. The swords are neat, and pretty interesting, but only three of them, maybe four, carry any narrative weight.

He didn’t like doing it, but he had drawn the short straw and it was time someone talked to the boss about how out of control his walking sticks had become.

While the swords are being handed out, we take time to watch Fire-Wind’s forces attack the village, and this is where the action starts to feel lazy. The action is not interesting or particularly well shot. There is no emotional weight as there was a little while before. When the slaughter is interrupted by the entry of the seven heroes, it feels less like a fight and more like an exhibition in the art of showing off how many flips people can do. Again, it’s not interesting, it’s just trying to show who can be the biggest badass. Without emotional weight this doesn’t do much. The action is meaningless because we don’t care all that much about the characters yet. It’s one of those places where you can start feeling the missteps. The action scene should have been a big deal and it’s just not. It’s not even much to look at, which is a shame because much of the movie is very well shot.

Oh man, I just stepped in something over here.

Donnie Yen’s character is actually a badass and he acts enough like one that you can really believe it. He’s a strong silent type and he has the best sword, so he makes a good bad ass. The problem is that the rest of the crew is almost without personality and the one with a personality seems to be grooming a young boy to be his… um… well I’m guessing he’s Catholic is the point. It’s not stated, but it feels like that’s where things are leading. There’s just not enough character development in this movie, and that’s a big problem. A lot of time feels wasted, just watching people ride around on horses while stirring music plays. Then we get another decent, but not great action scene. This one is at least shot during the day but it’s still sort of dull and doesn’t do much for the movie as a whole. The one on one fights are okay, but the group battles are just pointless. Some soldiers are killed, and a couple of hench-people axed, but there are always more where they came from. Added to the problem is that some of the weapons look rubbery and like they’d be more comfortable on Xena. The only thing of consequence that happens is that Donnie Yen’s badass character saves a slave girl who will become important to him and thus will move the plot along later in the story.

This is going to make an awesome album cover guys!

Now with the movie an hour over and the characters all aware of each other, it’s time to stop the narrative dead and try to make some attempt to develop the characters. It’s a weak attempt though, and there isn’t a lot of characterization to be had. For a two and a half hour movie, that was originally four hours long, there isn’t much here. Or rather, there seems to be a mix between being over loaded and under loaded at the same time. Because so much was cut away, the pacing is totally thrown off and it makes everything seem longer than it is. Anyhow, the way we’ve chosen to waste time is by deciding to abandon the village and go into hiding. The trip from the village to the caves behind Helms Deep (or wherever) takes way more time than it should and possibly causes the movie to rush at the speed of light. Because not much time passes for the movie, only about half an hour, but for the observer time crawls along and you grow old and die waiting for something interesting to happen while your twin thumbs his nose at you from a comfortable red shifted position.

Does the stasche distract from the hat, or does the hat distract from the stache?

About the only thing that makes the half hour worth sitting through is that the guy playing Fire-Wind hasn’t been fed in six months and now able to survive purely on the scenery which he chews like a starving monkey. Some of the scenes are lovely, but in that way that it’s easy to ignore because it’s the sort of beauty that you can find in almost any wuxia movie made from about 1999 up ‘til today. There’s a couple of story lines I’ve failed to mention thus far because they don’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things. They don’t have much resonance to the story, or they’re just distractions to the tale or OH GODS! I DON’T CARE! Why are there so many scenes of them riding horses? So much time is wasted in pointless diversion and what is probably set up for the sequel that will never be made that it seriously hurts this movie. This is a major problem with planned franchises. They try to set up the next movie and leave threads dangling, but fail to remember people have to be interested enough in the story they’re actually watching to want to get into the next one. As it stands, we’re very much in a place during the second half of the movie that I just don’t care what happens next.

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”
“The outfit or the gate?”

So let’s skip ahead to the next interesting thing that happens. Donnie Yen’s bad ass get’s caught in a trap y Fire-Wind and the heroes have to go and rescue him. When they get to fire wind’s place, they find him holding Donnie’s badass sword in his hand and hold Donnie’s badass character in chains. That’s when the big fight comes and its equal measures awesome and lame. Lame because all the group battles in this movie have been lame, awesome because all the one on one battles have been awesome and this one is the probably the best thus far. Actually, the way the fight starts is pretty cool, seeing as which member it is who decides that the group is going to fight instead of just giving up. The group fight is till sort of lazy and lacking though. You never really get time to see how each of the seven works with their sword. It’s not until the main fight between Donnie Yen’s badass and Fire-Wind gets going.

Suddenly they put their differences behind them and attacked the fire brazier.

Fire-Wind uses Donnie Yen’s badass sword (which is the best of the bunch) while Donnie Yen’s Badass character uses the second best sword to combat him. The two swords seem to have magnetic properties and thus work off each other and the scenery while the fight goes on. This is probably one of my favorite sword fights, at least in HK cinema because there is actually a lot going on in the fight besides just the fighting. It even contains a hallway fight, which is a Donnie Yen specialty as far as I can tell. This fight is so well choreographed, shot and edited, that it really annoys me how dull some of the other fights are. It also annoys me how badly they end this fight. In the end, instead of trusting Donnie Yen to be awesome, which he is, they fall back on bad CGI, which sort of kills the moment. Once they’ve killed the moment, and Fire-Wind (OMG! SPOILERS!) the movie sort of ends with the promise of more movies to come. However, since this movie fails to deliver on the screen it sort of failed to deliver at the box office. With that failure, there probably isn’t going to be a sequel. That’s sort of sad because the reason for some of the failures was trying too hard to set up the next five movies that Hark wanted to make after this.

Here we see Donnie Yen, in his natural habitat… awesomeness.

In the end, this movie wanted to be better, but things just kept getting in the way. The movie was cut almost in half, and a lot of things may have gone to the wayside when that happened. A lot of story is missing, a lot of development is missing, and some of the action just isn’t very good. It looks nice, but what doesn’t when this much is spent? I wouldn’t say don’t buy it, you can buy this movie and really enjoy watching it. If you want the story to be fully filled in, there is a TV Show that runs about 40 episodes. I can’t fully recommend this, because it’s not very good, but I won’t tell you not to buy it or anything. Some people have really loved this movie, others not so much. At this point there is only one thing you’re looking for, so I’ll give it to you…

Official Score:
49 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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