It's been 23 years since Jet Li has worked with Tsui Hark and you'd expect something with better results or at least a final product that doesn't feel so cluttered. At times, it's difficult to distinguish the difference between the heroes and the villains. During the time of the Ming Dynasty, the emperor's eunuchs came into power and divided themselves into the East Bureau and the West Bureau. Eunuchs in both bureaus abused their power and were notorious for being some of the most corrupt individuals around, but the West Bureau was the more feared of the two. Stuck in the middle is a vigilante named Zhou Huai'an (Li), a skilled swordsman who rejects both Bureaus and desires order to be restored to the royal throne.
That summary doesn't sound all that complicated, but once Dragon Gate and its innkeepers are introduced along with Zhang Xiao Wen (Kwai Lun-mei) and her tribe and the wandering Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and her traveling partner Wind Blade (Chen Kun) who looks exactly like the head of the West Bureau Yu Huatian (also played by Chen Kun) all while a mysterious woman named Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun) does her best to hide a former palace maid who's now pregnant and on the run named Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), things get more than a little convoluted very quickly.
The wuxia film isn't without its strengths though. The cinematography is stunning and is nearly as beautiful and as colorful as "Hero" at times. Colors, specifically reds, blues, and greens, leap off the screen and the extremely elaborate detail of the palace walls or the designs on someone's armor look only better in high definition. Wheat fields by the water, the sepia and dry tones of the desert, and its massive impressive landscapes are just a few examples of the film's incredibly absorbing camera work.
There are at least portions of the screenplay that are well-written; its best moments are in the first half of the film when someone is being threatened with their life. "Give me some wine. Time to taste some pickled body parts," and Yu Huatian's speech about how he'll fix the East Bureau's botches are just a few examples.
All of the film's strengths are bogged down by its weaknesses though; the most guilty culprit being the wuxia itself. Most wuxia films are out of control as everyone is flying around with superhuman abilities that just leap over the line that divides the possible from the impossible. Many of the action sequences come off as goofy and extremely overzealous. If that isn't enough, the special effects will get to you.
Half the time, the people bouncing around the screen are completely computer generated and it's not even well done CG. Things like drops of blood and tables float in the air during the most heated battles. Add that along with everyone flying about and it's as if some weird anti-gravity setting was established for everyone but purposely left you in the dark about it. The entire second half of the film revolves around this massive sandstorm at Dragon Gate and these really bizarre looking yet menacing storm clouds. It sounds like it has potential, but nearly everything in the last hour is noticeably done in front of a green screen.
Having at least part of the final battle take place inside one of the several tornados caused by this sandstorm sounds pretty awesome, doesn't it? It turns out to be one of those ideas that sounds a hell of a lot better on paper as the execution comes off looking really cheap.The CG gets more and more heavy as the film progresses and it seems like things only get more and more ridiculous; not only visually but structurally as well.
In the middle of all this is this really bizarre, "let's play hard to get for three years and act like we don't need each other" love story between Zhou and Ling. Then the ending rolls around and just kind of leaves you hanging without much closure on most of the characters. Imagine hanging out with your best friend or significant other and your siblings, if you have any. The best friend tells you they're going to the store while your siblings say they're off to the park on the other side of town, but you never see any of them ever again. They're still at those locations and are still perfectly healthy. You just never bother seeing them ever again. Pretty crummy way to end a relationship, right?
"Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" looks spectacular during the scenes that were actually filmed traditionally, the screenplay at least seems to start off strong, and much of the action is extremely fast paced, so it's at least able to get your adrenaline pumping at times. Everything seems to crumble apart as soon as you try to compliment it though. The dodgy special effects really put a damper on everything as does the conclusion that doesn't really feel like it resolves much of anything. Although there is some enjoyment to be found in "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," it's a wuxia film that is mostly very messy in every sense of the word.
Special features include Making of "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" Part 1 (4:48) and Part 2 (9:16), Interviews with Cast and Filmmakers (20:21), Behind the Scenes (32:21), and the trailer. The only difference between the single-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray release of the film is the inclusion of the film in 3-D.