Thursday, 28 July 2016

Film Review - 'Dragon Tiger Gate'

For me, there has always been an odd sense that your average martial arts film often doesn't necessarily need to abide by the same rules as other genres. It has often seemed that, as long as the martial arts action is entertaining enough, any other flaws that the film might have could be easily forgiven. Whether it's a shaky script, poorly developed characters, or even poor performances from the film's cast, I have always had the impression that these can be overlooked as long as the action was entertaining (to be fair, I'm also aware that you could say the same about any type of action film).

A martial arts film is kind of like pornography, in that way - although, I'm aware that not everyone will be as amused by that analogy as I am. Regardless, though, that's just the impression that I've always had - whether it actually matches with anyone else's opinion is another matter, entirely. It does seem to be somewhat accurate with regard to this film, at least.

Dragon Tiger Gate tells the tale of two half-brothers, one named Dragon and other named Tiger (because, it's just that sort of film), who were separated at a young age. Tiger (Nicholas Tse), the younger of the two, was raised at the titular Dragon Tiger Gate - a school devoted to teaching its young students the virtues of martial arts. Dragon (Donnie Yen), whose mother died shortly after leaving the school, herself, was taken in by Ma Kun (Kuan Tai Chen), a surprisingly kind-hearted Triad boss who raised him to become the bodyguard for his own family.

Ma Kun's gang is one of many forced to answer to the evil Luocha cult, led by a mysterious figure known as Shibumi (Louis Koo) - but, he has plans to retire from his long life of crime, and settle down. Once he has done so, Ma Kun also intends to release Dragon from his obligations so that the young man will finally be able to seek out what is left of his own family.

A chance encounter brings the two half-siblings back into each others lives, though - and, their first meeting in many years is not a peaceful one. While the story seems to be headed toward an escalating rivalry between the two, though, things take a sudden turn when Shibumi learns of Ma Kun's plans to retire, and has him killed. From there, we have a sudden change in the film's overall tone, as Dragon sets out to avenge the man who he had come to regard as a father-figure - with support from Tiger, and another young martial artist named Turbo (Shawn Yue) who wishes to be taken on as a student of the Dragon Tiger Gate school.

It is in this later half of the film that the majority of its major issues can be found. The first half of the film does a fairly decent job of introducing its cast of characters and establishing their relationships - as well as setting the overall tone of the film with some creative camera-work, and entertaining large-scale action sequences. It is also able to establish its three central protagonists as genuinely likable figures, thanks to the quality of the performances. This first-half of the film is developed with enough care that you might find yourself feeling genuinely invested in where the story seems to be headed.

But, as we move into the second half, the film seems to stumble as it begins to rapidly introduce new elements to a plot-line that suddenly seems a little too convoluted. As the true villain of the tale, Shibumi is not actually properly introduce the the audience until well into the film's running time - and, his appearance seems to come out of nowhere. His character and motivations, beyond his refusal to let an old man retire and live out the rest of his life, are also frustratingly unclear.

Beyond that, too, there is also the casual, and entirely unexplained, inclusion of supernatural elements later in the film - something which can across as more than a little jarring, when compared to the film's first half. At this point, things just began to move too rapidly for any of plot-points in Dragon Tiger Gate to be easily followed - leaving us with a film that felt increasingly disjointed and confused as we approached its end. While everything felt fairly straight-forward and manageable, at the start, I just found that I had an increasingly difficult time following anything that was happening, as the film progressed.

Even at its most confusing, though, Dragon Tiger Gate is still an impressive looking film. While the plot-line may become frustratingly muddled once we are introduced to Shibumi, and the more overtly supernatural elements that his presence added, I do have to admit that the film's action sequences actually did manage to become more entertaining. The action scenes that we had earlier in the film were already well-choreographed and genuinely entertaining, of course - but, the added supernatural aspect added an extra layer of wildly over-the-top action to these later sequences which I couldn't help but enjoy.

It is, of course, quite possible that any fans of the long-running comic-book series, on which this film is based, would have a much easier time following Dragon Tiger Gate than I did - but, unfortunately, it also seems likely that the majority of those unfamiliar with this source material would be left horribly confused. Still, the film's action sequences are impressive enough that Dragon Tiger Gate is still a genuinely entertaining film, in spite of these fairly serious issues - so, if you're anything like me, then maybe that will still be enough to make the film worth your time.

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