The problem with reviewing martial arts films (not 'films with martial arts in them' but 'martial arts films', the distinction is important) is that most of them do not stand up as films, even the good ones. They tend to be formulaic, poorly written with broad and unfocused characters, even before we hit the nearly physical language and culture barrier that leads many of them to be poorly translated and even more poorly dubbed. There are exceptions of course; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes to mind, as does Unleashed, but for the most part 'Good' is a more relative term here than in any other genre this side of monster movies.
This is not to say that you should exit the browser and ignore the rest of my review. I'm merely qualifying my opinion. Good and Bad becomes relative terms the second we find out it's a martial arts film.
Right now is, usually, the part where I recap the plot but it all seems rather pointless. One of the first casualties of a martial arts film is the story and that's for a reason; all the plot setup is included in the genre. 'They have insulted our school, we must respond in kind,' is a well worn cliché in this genre. Though I suppose it's worse when they try to deviate from it; Elephant retrieval anyone?
Okay so the plot is a lost cause, which is fine because they frankly don't spend a lot of time on it. It's all hinging on this big tournament, in which everyone wants to compete (but only has like 5 contestants). The bad guys want to win, because if they do they'll get some vaguely defined power and the good guys want to win because if the bad guys win, a bunch of people will suffer for some reason.
It's all for naught as the dialogue is terrible, clearly reflecting the aforementioned language and cultural barriers. And on that note, any chance at real human interaction is pulled down by an obvious (and extremely flat) dub. This isn't helped by many of the characters looking and sounding similar; At one point a female character removed her defining characteristic and I spent 10 minutes convinced she was another character until the character I thought she was just showed up out of the blue.
So the plot and characters are a lost cause, but thankfully action is here to the rescue. Once we get past all the melodrama and training montages and actual get down to the frequent combat scenes, the movie comes alive. Much of it consists of well choreographed cliché fights, but they're all well made and exciting so that's not a problem. There are also a couple of not unclever spins on the formula, like a sword-on-fist fight and a fight in the dark by instruction.
Of course, when you think about it too hard, this is an extremely silly movie. Some of this can be chalked up to a poor dub, as the flat delivery combined with the terrible lip synch means that a lot of it feels really incongruous. But more of it is simply the content. More than one plot point can be hinged on 'And suddenly, NINJA' (Put DOWN the E-mail client fellow history buffs, I know that ninja are not from China, it's just what they look and act like). And no one can explain to me how we're supposed to take the sequence of the main female and male character running at each other in slow motion seriously. But it never gets in the way of the movie being enjoyable, and with the right people around it can actually make it more enjoyable.
I guess when you get down to it, Five Fingers of Death is a alright example of it's genre. Not a particularly good one mind; the characters are still too thinly sketched and the plot far too vague and predictable for that. But it's exciting and enjoyable and well made in all the ways it needs to be. It's not a thought provoking piece of cinema, but if you enjoy martial arts films in general or ironically, it's an enjoyable representative of it's genre, despite it's flaws. I guess that means this review is a little shorter than usual. See you next time.
Next on Second Age Reviews: Goldfinger
Elessar is 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's not even going to go into the noises that happen when people's arms and such collide.