Movies based on comic books aren’t expected to be deep on any level, but the extent to which “Dragon Tiger Gate” goes to excising any semblance of respectable storyline borders on impressive. Of course, if you’re only after groovy martial arts duels and half-baked melodrama, then the film will certainly suffice. Based on the popular comic book by Yuk Long Wong, “Dragon Tiger Gate” is directed by Wilson Yip, who produced last year’s highly entertaining and gritty martial arts/police crime actioner “Sha Po Lang” (since re-titled “Kill Zone” for Western audiences). Action choreography comes to us courtesy of star Donnie Yen, who is quickly making a name for himself as the guy to go to when Yuen Woo Ping is not available.
“Dragon Tiger Gate” opens well enough, with the righteous but brash Tiger Wong (Nicholas Tse) getting into a brouhaha with crimelord Kwun’s gang at a restaurant. At stake is a plaque that grants Kwun a healthy share of the criminal business, delivered to him by the beautiful Rosa courtesy of masked kingpin Shibumi Lousha (Xiao Ran Li). During the restaurant ruckus, Tiger Wong ends up butting heads with his long lost brother Dragon Wong (Donnie Yen). As it so happens, Dragon left the Dragon Tiger Gate, a sort of hospice for the needy (although they only seem to train martial arts to kids, so you figure it out), many years ago, and is only now returning home.
A lot of stuff happens from this point on, including: Dragon tries to get his boss to retire early, Tiger falls in love with Kwun’s daughter Xiaoling (Jie Dong), and there’s a final confrontation with Shibumi, who despite being (apparently) the lord of all criminals in the film’s anachronistic city, nonetheless resides in a dank basement-like “castle” with absolutely no furniture and wears a grotesque mask for reasons unknown. To be honest, nothing about Shibumi makes sense, so hopefully those who have read the comics will know better, as I am clueless, and do not particularly care to know.
Needless to say, you won’t be spending a whole lot of time trying to figure out what is happening in “Dragon Tiger Gate”. It’s a basic movie, constructed from basic plots, with its one saving grace being the intricate action choreography by Donnie Yen. As an actor, Yen has still not improved enough to carry a movie; not that he has any help from Hong Kong heartthrobs Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue, both of whom look to be on cruise control, probably spending more time polishing up their action scenes (they are not real martial artists) than all that “acting stuff”. And although I’m certain it’s by design, the hairstyle of our three heroes end up emoting more convincingly than the men themselves. Now that’s what I call being upstaged!
“Dragon Tiger Gate” gets points for style, but not much else. When Dragon or Tiger aren’t kicking ass, the film gets bogged down with ridiculous romantic entanglements, including Dragon’s oft-talked about, but never acted upon (at least onscreen) affair with Rosa, and Tiger’s sophomoric “meet cute” relationship with Xiaoling. Of more interest is the crimelord Ma Kwun, who doesn’t really seem like all that bad of a guy. I mean, the fact that he’s a crimelord notwithstanding. He’s actually quite an agreeable chap, and seems to want nothing more than to leave his life of crime behind to concentrate on his darling daughter. Which he eventually does, with (predictably) disastrous results.
Giving credit where credit is due, the only real reason why “Dragon Tiger Gate” even gets a passing grade is thanks to the plentiful action. Which seems to leave director Wilson Yip in the cold. Could you blame the film’s weakness, its non-action moments, on Yip? Yes and no. The script is not exactly made of sturdy stuff, with the first 60 minutes doing little more than treading water. It’s not until the hour mark that Shibumi climbs out of his basement/castle to do battle, taking center stage as the film’s chief villain. And while the sudden focus on an identifiable villain is appreciated, the film also becomes even more random in nature, sacrificing any semblance of story for genre cliché like super healing potions, secret martial arts moves, and mysterious masters in towering buildings.
In the end, does it matter? Not really. If sold exclusively as an action movie with some pretty cool stunt work and a lot of CGI, “Dragon Tiger Gate” delivers. It’s a visually impressive film, especially when the kicks are coming hard and fast, and a lot of the movie’s purposefully anachronistic vibes work. For instance, the film has contemporary sensibilities (everyone is carrying cellphones), but no one uses guns, instead relying on old-fashioned kung fu (and of course, nunchukas). The characters all seem to be hip to modern fashion, and even Shibumi, the evil, all-powerful crimelord, is decked out in baggy cargo pants.
Although the film does come dangerously close to overdosing on too much CGI toward the end (a ridiculous minute-long plummet through what seems like all the layers of hell comes to mind), the undemanding audience should be sufficiently entertained. “Dragon Tiger Gate” works more often than not, with its strong points (its action) easily overshadowing its lackluster performances and writing. The film certainly gets all kinds of extra points for style, something I’m sure everyone can appreciate, if just on a surface level. And say what you will about Donnie Yen (the man does indeed suffer terribly from vanity issues), but the guy knows how to do action scenes.
Wilson Yip (director) / Yuk Long Wong (comic book)
CAST: Donnie Yen …. Dragon Wong
Nicholas Tse …. Tiger Wong
Shawn Yue …. Turbo Shek
KuanTai Chen …. Ma Kwun
Jie Dong …. Ma Xiaoling
Xiao Ran Li …. Shibumi Lousha