One thing Westerners need to keep in mind when watching a movie like “The Storm Warriors” is this: characters like Cloud, Wind, and Lord Godless are the Chinese equivalent of Americans dressing up in tights and firing laser beams out of their eyes at each other, all the while using silly codenames like Cyclops, Colossus, and Magneto. And like a lot of comic book-based superhero movies, fantasy actioners like “The Storm Warriors” and its ilk are based on popular Asian comics as well. Keeping this in mind, all the flying, fire-shooting, and energy discharges in the film are perfectly acceptable, and indeed, expected. What’s a comic book movie without unexplainable super powers blasting things to smithereens, after all?
“The Storm Warriors” pick up some time after the first movie, 1998’s “The Storm Riders”, with Cloud (Aaron Kwok) and Nameless (Kenny Ho) in the custody of ambitious bad guy Lord Godless (Simon Yam) and his equally loathsome son Heart (Nicholas Tse). Godless, proving worthy of the name, has slowly but surely subjugated most of China, and now seeks one of those hidden secret McGuffins that will make him truly invincible. But first, he requires that all the martial arts masters bow to him, lest they suffer his wrath. Fortunately for our heroes, Cloud, Nameless, and a suddenly appearing Wind (Ekin Cheng) manage to escape to fight another day. With Nameless badly injured during his brief encounter with Godless, it’s up to Wind and Cloud to learn some new skills to take down the wannabe tyrant, even as Godless’s army closes in for the kill. As our two heroes go their separate ways to achieve the needed upgrade, it may very well be that their deadliest foe may not be Godless but rather, each other.
Directed by the brothers Pang (“The Eye”, “The Messengers”), “The Storm Warriors” would appear to have a lot going on (assisted by the cold opening in Lord Godless’s makeshift cave/prison/love joint), but is in fact a pretty straight forward movie with a very contained (i.e. shockingly unambitious) plot. The film does put its big budget to good use, and the movie is full of crazy and unbelievable fights heavily doctored with “300”-esque green screen action and camera tricks, as if the Pangs saw Zack Snyder’s movie and thought, “Hey, we can do that – except in Chinese!” Visually speaking, “The Storm Warriors” is a major step up from the first movie, but that’s to be expected after 11 years worth of filmmaking advancements. It’s not “Avatar”, of course, but it’s probably very high-end by Hong Kong standards. Unfortunately visuals alone don’t make the movie, and this is where the Pangs fall short.
Like the original, “Warriors” is up to its tattered capes in ridiculously named characters with fantastical powers. People don’t swing swords in “The Storm Warriors”, they grab them with invisible hands, spin them around in vortexes, and shoot them at you like bullets. That goes double for water, wind, and fire. And er, throw in some Earth too while you’re at it. And since this is a sequel, and sequels demand to be bigger and better (or at least, louder), our two returning heroes must go through a power boost, with the more even keeled Wind chosen to undergo a “demon power” process (which basically amounts to him sitting in a pool of “demon water” inside a mountain cave), while Cloud goes the more traditional route of using a training montage under the tutelage of Nameless. Although fans of the original will get a kick out of seeing Kwok and Cheng back as the two heroes, the duo’s individual masters are actually the more intriguing characters, in particular Wind’s Lord Wicked, who, shall we say, did some impromptu surgery on himself when the same demon power he’s trying to pass on to Wind proved too much for him to handle. Say, you think there’s some foreshadowing going on there?
It must be said that for a movie of its supposed scope (we are talking about the invasion of China here, after all), “The Storm Warriors” is very limited in presentation. Aside from one brief and very stylized war montage that looks like they could have been deleted scenes from Snyder’s “300”, “The Storm Warriors” confine itself to a few half dozen locations and sets. I think it’s probably safe to say that the actors never once wandered into the real world to shoot any scene for the movie. The production design is too obvious, and you never get the sense that these are actual places, and not a mountain cliff or cave that a lot of hard-working people put together for the movie. Speaking of mountains – damn, there are a lot of mountain locations in “The Storm Warriors”. Seriously, I don’t know who the previous record holder is for movies set in, on, and around mountains, but “Warriors” may have it beat by a good stretch.
Putting aside a denouement that just keeps on going and going, the film suffers badly from dull characters. As mentioned, whereas Cloud and Wind’s masters prove somewhat intriguing, the students, alas, are little more than lifeless, plot-necessary vessels. Apparently a lot has happened since the events of the first film, because it’s hinted that our formerly antagonistic heroes have since bonded. Unfortunately, telling is not showing, and the Pangs never bother to show any sort of bond that is supposed to exist between the two leads. As such, when the two heroes are locked in a life-and-death struggle that takes up pretty much the film’s final 30 minutes, the whole thing rings false. Of course it probably doesn’t help that Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng have been directed to let their willowy hair styles and fluttering tattered clothes (it’s windy in them mountains) do all the heavy lifting, not to mention their awesomely cartoonish swords.
Curiously, the lack of any insights into the two main characters actually make the complete absence of characterization for everyone else, from the two damsels to the two villains, sort of, well, not all that big of a sin. After all, if even the two leads don’t get any cursory insight, what chance do the supporting players have? Simon Yam, in particular, is criminally underutilized as Lord Godless. The actor is almost entirely lost in his “invincible” armor, while Nicholas Tse as the sly, douchebaggey son smirks a lot and slinks around in the background, and is never convincing as a killer of men. The girls, Charlene Choi as the improbably named Second Dream and Yan Tang as Chu Chu (replacing Qi Shu from the first movie), don’t fare any better. Of course you can’t really blame them. This is a boys club, and the boys have no time for chick stuff in-between the brooding and fighting.
I’m inclined to say that fans of 1998’s “The Storm Riders” will probably enjoy “The Storm Warriors” more than the casual viewer, but I’m not sure if that would be entirely accurate. The fans are the ones who will notice that while the first movie was lacking the refined special effects of its successor, it was also incredibly a lot more fun, something that the sequel just never tries to be. How could you not love a movie where one of the leads loses an arm, but manages to re-attach it anyway? There is none of that kind of goofy entertainment value to be found in “Warriors”. It’s all very drab and very serious, and I swear 90% of the movie is shot with extensive grays and browns (lots of mountains and caves, as you’ll recall). And that’s really what dooms “The Storm Warriors”: oh sure, the special effects are nice and the action is appropriately crazy and out of this world fantastical, but the film, its directors, and its stars never once looked like they were having a good time making it. The viewer, I’m afraid, will probably feel the same way after watching the movie.
Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang (director) / Wing-Shing Ma (screenplay)
CAST: Aaron Kwok … Cloud
Ekin Cheng … Wind
Simon Yam … Lord Godless
Kenny Ho … Nameless
Nicholas Tse … Heart
Charlene Choi … Second Dream
Yan Tang … Chu Chu
Suet Lam … Piggy King
Tak-bun Wong … Lord Wicked