Dragon Tiger: Martial Arts Film Slightly Disappointing

Getting off to a very Marvel-like start should be enough of a hint that here’s a comic book adaptation, in this event a conversion of an identically-titled HK staple.
Similar to a multitude of other martial arts action fiestas, Dragon Tiger Gate espouses a mix of sentiment and beat ’em up orchestration that leaves it lingering on the average end of the dial.

Firstly, a word on the CG effects, used mostly in delivering a pseudo-Hong Kong metropolis that’s seldom seen, yet overall manages to keep in tune with the urban, almost post-apocalyptic visage required in superhero stories. Technically, DTG looks quite good until you proceed to pay attention, and realize one especially long shot of the city basically takes digitizations of real-world skyscrapers, mixes them up and hopes for the best. This kind of amateurish shortcut doesn’t become an otherwise professional production.

But aside from several visual faux pas, DTG’s other irony is that the plentiful emotional segments really work much better than its action bits, which is somewhat odd in a fighting extravaganza. Uniquely enough, it’s easy to become enthralled by the emotive content more so than with Donnie Yen’s fight choreography, and despite submitting more than a mere sample of tacky clichÃ?©s, the film nonetheless packs a touching punch far more formidable than its roundhouse kick.

And make no mistake, it’s all about Donnie Yen, fresh from success with crime-noir number SPL (also directed by Wilson Yip), and less triumphant moments in Seven Swords and Hero. Surely, Yen’s genuine martial arts prowess and good-guy charm come charging in on top of making movies like Dragon Inn and Iron Monkey so memorable, but in DTG he’s in weaker form. Having said that, co-starring hunks Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue (Infernal Affairs trilogy) fall far short of eclipsing yen, indeed living up to their roles as his subordinates.

The trio delivers Dragon Tiger Gate’s pivotal triumvirate of characters, Yen as Wong Siu Long (Little Dragon), a master fighter employed by benevolent underworld boss Kun (one has to love those kindly mobsters). When Kun’s empire comes under attack from mysteriously evil overlord Shibumi (Yan Kung), Siu Long’s enrolled in the cause, particularly since it involves protecting fragile Kun daughter Xiaoling (Dong Jie, who’s grown a lot since Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times).

Help for struggling Siu Long emerges from leftfield in the form of two fighters also trained in eponymous kung fu academy Dragon Tiger Gate. Wong Siu Fu (Tiger Wong, done by reformed badboy Nicholas Tse) and Shek Hak Long (charismatic Shawn Yue’s Turbo Shek) both lend a helping hand. All receive a proper thrashing until realizing several internal issues and consigning themselves to the sacrifice one must offer in the name of goodness. Thus, DTG follows a path previously tread by the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninjas, since here too a goofy master bestows magical supernatural powers in a scene that comes across out of place.

As entire gangs of underworld henchmen and enough home dÃ?©cor for a Home Depot/IKEA combination megastore are demolished, the movie intersperses its action and borderline-sci fi atmosphere with back story, revealing the hurt that brought many of the characters together. These function well in spite of being ostensibly trite, extending to the story’s most alluring persona, ambivalent beauty Rosa, who’s affection for Siu Long conflicts with working for arch-rival Shibumi. Gorgeous Li Xiao Ran renders this troubled individual with flying colors, proving almost on a par with Maggie Cheung’s double agent role in Moon Warriors all those years back.

Yet capable melodrama and a few acceptably strong performances do not suffice in qualifying Dragon Tiger Gate the classic. It may be often confused with Wuxia heyday masterpiece Dragon Gate Inn (1992), but rest assured a gulf separates the two.
Toned-down, unimaginative moves come as a surprise from Yen, veteran of so many martial arts bonanzas himself, and the story in general does little to transcend the formulaic.

This is another major native East Asian comic book transition onto the silver screen that fails in many respects, following abysmal Initial D last summer. While blissfully not as bad, Dragon Tiger Gate has very little to recommend it beyond a few choice moments, and even those take it only so far, a predicament familiar to viewers from previous high-profile releases also afflicted with dud syndrome: Legend of Zu, Avenging Fist and Black Mask 2 all come to mind.

The hunt for a summer 2006 mastery of things action continues, and in the meantime, perhaps Dragon Tiger Gate aficionados can bide their time patiently for a hopefully reinforced home video release.

Rating: * * *

Directed by Wilson Yip
Starring Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Dong Jie, Li Xiao Ran
2006, Cantonese, 100 minutes

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