I don’t give out 1-star ratings often (and in fact, I can count all the movies I have given 1-star ratings to on one hand), because I usually reserve them for special occasions. Andrew Lau’s The Duel is the kind of movie that leaves you with your jaw on the floor — for the simple reason that you can’t understand how it could have been as bad as it was. The film, a period martial arts movie, is a generic repetition of 100s of other sword-fighting movies made by Hong Kong in the last decade or so. Besides that, The Duel is another in a long line of Hong Kong films attempting to mix Western cgi technology with Eastern swordplay. The result is sometimes watchable (The Storm Riders), sometimes overwhelming (Avenging Fist), and sometimes unfathomably uninspired. The Duel fits into that last category.
The Duel stars Hong Kong mainstays Ekin Cheng and Andy Lau (no relation to the director) as Simon the Snow Blower and Cool-Son Yeh, respectively, two master swordsmen who become the subject of a duel when Yeh decides it’s time he challenged the hermit-like Simon to a battle. Caught up in the upcoming duel is Dragon 9 (Nick Cheung), Simon’s best friend, and Princess Phoenix (Vicki Zhao), the Emperor’s spoiled little sister who has developed a girly crush on the much-older Yeh. As the day for the duel draws closer, Dragon 9, the Emperor’s ace Imperial Agent, begins to unravel a conspiracy that may or may not involve Simon, and is somehow related to the duel as well as the Emperor. And oh yes, chatty-Kathy Phoenix refuses to leave the poor Dragon 9 alone!
As a reviewer I am obligated to list why The Duel was a miserable moviegoing experience, but as a human being I am loathe to relive this picture. The director is Andrew Lau (Dance of a Dream), a man who is quickly developing a reputation for making pictures with assembly line-like quality. Writer Wong Jing (High Risk) is most notable for being a writer whose movies I have sworn to stay away from from now on, on the simple premise that I find his writing style to be clumsy, without skill, and childish and without substance. With these two filmmakers involved, plus the inclusion of the prolific Ekin Cheng, is it any wonder The Duel is a miserable piece of drivel without any semblance of entertainment value?
Acting is poor across the board, and even Wong Jing’s (highly questionable) trademark slapstick humor comes across as a loud thud. Actress Vicki Zhao whines and annoys her way through the movie, somehow mistaking a squeaky, babyish voice for acting. The beautiful Kristy Yang is poorly used, turning from a female warrior early in the film to a whimpering and doe-eyed maiden for the rest of the movie. Ekin Cheng, as usual, has as much charisma as those strands of hair that keeps falling over his face. The usually reliable and excitable Andy Lau must have been on Prozac, because his oddly restrained performance brings absolutely nothing to the movie. Nick Cheung’s Dragon 9 seems miscast, but does manage to show the most acting ability of the group.
Besides Cheng’s dead-man-walking acting style and writer Jing’s insipid dialogue and plotting, the movie relies heavily on special effects for its fights, leaving one to wonder — once again — if any of this people even bothered to learn actual martial arts. Hong Kong cinema has survived a lot of garbage in its long history. There were the chop-socky films made famous by Bruce Lee in the early “˜70s, the cheap and quickie period martial arts films of the late “˜70s, and the gangster films of the “˜80s. Now, in the late “˜90s and early millennium, Hong Kong cinema has become fascinated (or is the appropriate word “obsessed?”) with using as much computer-aided effects as possible in their movies.
Movies like Avenging Fist and A Man Called Hero have nurtured the idea that there seems to no longer be any rhyme or reason for the inclusion of cgi in Hong Kong films other than to say, “Look, it’s cgi!” Even movies like 2002, although funny and tongue-in-cheek, rely too heavily on the same special effects. One has to wonder how long Hong Kong cinema can survive this total lack of substance and over-reliance on drowning the audience in cgi. Whatever happened to just making a film that is smart, funny, or thrilling?
From what I can tell, Hong Kong cinema can’t possibly get any worst than movies like The Duel and Avenging Fist. Then again, I’ve been wrong before…
Andrew Lau (director) / Andrew Lau (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau …. Cool-Son Yeh
Ekin Cheng …. Simon the Snow Blower
Nick Cheung …. Dragon 9
Vicki Zhao …. Princess Phoenix
Kristy Yang …. Ye Ziqing