With John Woo’s mighty “Red Cliff” having been in production for an age before finally storming into Chinese cinemas, it was always inevitable that a number of other films would attempt to steal a little of its thunder, or at least to cash in on its inevitable success. The highest profile and arguably the most promising of these is “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon”, from Hong Kong director Daniel Lee (who despite having recently slipped up with “Dragon Squad, has a solid track record with the likes of “A Fighter’s Blues” and “Black Mask”), which also draws upon the rich drama of the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, and which actually beat its rival to screens by some time, quite nicely filling the gap following Peter Chan’s excellent costume epic “Warlords”. The film boasts an impressive cast including megastar Andy Lau, continuing his run of Mandarin-language period pieces, the legendary Sammo Hung, and the internationally popular Maggie Q, with appearances from Shaw Brothers heroes Ngok Wah and Ti Lung thrown in for good measure.
Rather than attempting to cover the entire history of the complex saga, “Three Kingdoms” chooses instead to focus on one character, namely Zhao Zilong (also known as Zhao Yun, here played by Lau, following up on similar roles in “Warlords” and “A Battle of Wits”). The narrative follows Zhao’s rise from humble foot soldier in Liu Bei’s (Ngok Wah) army to legendary general, charting several of his most famous feats such as the rescue of his leader’s infant son from the villainous Wei ruler Cao Cao (veteran actor Damian Lau, recently in “The Tokyo Trial”). Eventually, the film finds him as a seasoned veteran, locked into a final deadly struggle with Cao Cao’s granddaughter Cao Ying (Maggie Q, last seen in Hollywood blockbuster “Die Hard 4”).
To get the obvious and inevitable comparisons out of the way first, “Three Kingdoms” falls some way short of “Red Cliff”, lacking its epic scale, sense of heroism and indeed budget. Although based upon the same source material, taking even more liberties with the accepted facts, the film actually more resembles a lightweight version of “Warlords”, thanks to the casting of Lau, its gritty, barren look and its preponderance for mock-philosophical diatribes about just how nasty and unfair war can be (including much discussion of how victory is meaningless, how there is no victory without defeat, and so on ad infinitum).
However, since few films were ever likely to be able to compete with Woo’s juggernaut, this in itself is not necessarily a criticism, and thankfully “Three Kingdoms” is just about good enough to stand on its own merits. Although the plot plays hard and fast with history, and lacks any real kind of characterisation, it still makes for gripping viewing, with even a bowdlerised version of Zhao’s tale proving interesting. The voice over narration helps, and ensures that the plot progression is never too chaotic, though a sudden leap forward in time towards the end is handled a little clumsily. The cast are all on good form, especially Lau, who essentially carries the film with his noble, stoic performance, and Hung, who makes the most of a periphery role as Pingan, an old comrade of Zhao’s who grows jealous of his success.
Although not as opulent or resplendent as its peers, the film obviously still had a decent budget, and this shows itself through some impressive production values, with plenty of costumed extras and elaborate sets. There are a handful of large-scale battle scenes, all of which are reasonably thrilling, with enough blood and brutality to give the film a certain sense of down and dirty realism. For the most part Lee keeps the melodrama to a bare minimum, and, clocking in at just an hour and forty minutes, the film runs along at a brisk and exciting pace.
In fact, the film’s only real problem comes in the form of Lee’s direction, which sees him apparently desperate to out-do Woo in terms of packing in as many slow motion shots as possible. This proves to be very distracting, especially since he has a tendency to offset these by throwing in sudden bursts of speed. This is jarring for the viewer and gives some of the action and martial arts scenes an uncomfortably modern feel as if they would be more at home in a cop thriller.
Still, with a film obviously designed for designed for current commercial appeal this is not too severe a criticism, and “Three Kingdoms” basically manages to tick all the right boxes. Whilst not convincing or strong enough to offer a viable alternative to “Red Cliff”, or indeed “Warlords”, it nevertheless stands as a well-made piece of entertainment in its own right, above average by the standards of the genre and is recommended for fans of Chinese historical epics or the cast.
Daniel Lee (director) / Ho Leung Lau, Daniel Lee (screenplay), Guanzhong Luo (novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”)
CAST: Andy Lau … Zhao Zilong
Sammo Hung Kam-Bo … Luo Ping-An
Maggie Q … Cao Ying
Vanness Wu … Zhao Bao
Andy On … Deng Zhi
Rongguang Yu … Han De
Quanxin Pu … Zhuge Liang
Damian Lau … Cao Cao