Daniel Lee’s “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” is the second of the big-budget Chinese epics that I’ve seen, including the very underwhelming “An Empress and the Warriors”. It is also the first of two movies based on the epic Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong. There are two other Chinese epics that I have yet to see — “The Warlords”, which came out in late 2007, and the other “Three Kingdoms” movie, John Woo’s forthcoming “Red Cliff”. I plan to catch up on “The Warlords” (which co-stars Andy Lau, the star of “Resurrection of the Dragon”) as soon as possible, and it goes without saying that Woo’s “Red Cliff”, his return to Chinese cinema, is a must see.
“Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” is set in China, 228 A.D., during a time of great warfare, with the country divided into three kingdoms — Wei, Shu, and Wu. The film’s hero, Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau) is a citizen of Shu, and when we first meet him, he is an idealistic young man enlisting for the good fight with dreams of uniting his country for the better. Here, he meets the robust Ping-an (Sammo Hung), a veteran of the wars, who also hails from the same village as Zilong. After a string of daring victories against the armies of Lord Cao (Damian Lau), including one of those great mainstays of Chinese cinema, the one-versus-1000 battle, Zilong quickly rises through the ranks. He eventually attains greatness, earning the nickname “The Invincible General”, and goes on a three decades long campaign to unite the country.
You may have also heard that Maggie Q. is in the movie; she’s certainly featured heavily in the film’s trailers. Maggie Q., making time in Hollywood movies nowadays, does indeed co-star in “Three Kingdoms”. Her character, which we briefly see early in the film as a child, re-surfaces as the commander of the Cao armies about an hour into the movie, and it is her duel with Zilong at the spot of his greatest glory that makes up the film’s Third Act. Despite a limited and constricting role, Maggie Q. still manages to make an impression, playing Ying Cao as a scheming tactician/witch who will just as easily order your family’s death as she is to present herself to you as a surrogate daughter — recompense, if you will, for having ordered your family’s death in the first place.
At its most problematic, “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” is a mini-series squeezed into a 90-minute movie, meaning that too many good characters are given too few minutes of screentime. The film’s plot spans many decades, and the quick running time allows for only cursory acknowledgements of major events, such as the deaths, introductions, and absence of important characters. Much of the film is narrated by Sammo Hung’s Ping-an, a necessary device given the film’s attempt at telling an epic story with its limited minutes. Ping-an does return for a significant period in the final 30 minutes, adding a much needed personal touch to a movie that, up to this point seem to consist of little more than a series of random battles by faceless people in armor fighting in some random desert landscape.
It should be obvious by now that the film’s biggest obstacle is its own desire to tell an epic storyline. “Three Kingdoms” tells the lifetime of a great man, but only has a running time just north of 90 minutes to do it. That’s not nearly enough time, especially since the man was so great to begin with; after all, he wouldn’t be considered great if he hadn’t lived such a memorable life, would he? There’s little doubt that much of “Three Kingdoms” was dwindled away in the editing room; the finished film feels rushed, with much of the timeline — whole decades — taking place off screen in the space of a few minutes. One moment Zilong is a young spirited fighter, and the next he’s a white-haired old man leading the final charge in an effort to unite China’s feuding kingdoms once and for all. And in-between? Your guess is as good as mine.
“Three Kingdoms” does have an ace in the hole: its star, Andy Lau. As Zilong, Lau brings depth to the role of a seemingly invincible warrior, the last of the mighty Generals, who slowly but surely comes to realize that fate and destiny is stronger than even a man dubbed “invincible”. Even when the film muddles its way through the years, Andy Lau is its one worthwhile constant — he’s the only reason to keep watching. And it’s because Zilong, as portrayed by Lau, is so fascinating and such a riveting character, that we wished the film had not attempted so much (and failed so miserably), but instead focused on a small part of his life this one time, and save the rest for a sequel or two. Which leads us to …
Director Daniel Lee (“Dragon Heat”) does manage to right the ship somewhat with an outstanding final 30 minutes. With the film now settled on one time period, and with no further major leaps in years to clumsily finesse its way through, the action slows down for one final, meaningful encounter. It’s here that we get our best character moments from both sides of the battlefield. Rongguang Yu has a memorable role as a pathetic Cao General, a man who sacrifices all for Ying Cao’s schemes; the two’s complex relationship borders on the squeamish. Meanwhile, Andy On does good work as one of Zilong’s lieutenants; it’s too bad we know absolutely nothing about him, but then again, that can be said for almost every character in the film not named Zilong.
Is “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” another disappointing stab at epic filmmaking? Yes and No. While the film certainly attempts too much and fails too often, especially in the first hour, it makes up for a lot of stumbling and flailing with an excellent and captivating Third Act. Star Andy Lau once again shows why he’s one of the biggest draws in the Chinese film industry, and Maggie Q. proves she has star-making potential in the right vehicle. And while I could have done without director Daniel Lee’s ’90s blurry action style, Lee does get bonus points for some very odd choices in the film’s musical score. Every now and then, as characters ride out to do battle, I thought I was watching a Sergio Leone Western. That was unexpected, but definitely interesting.
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