Well, it’s that time of the year when the Cineworld Dublin puts on the bulk of its Asian cinema releases. I caught Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid earlier but League of Gods flew by my site surfing and I decided to give it a whirl. CG, Jet Li, Tony Leung being evil, Fan Bingbing being eviler and a race to see how many special effects you can have on screen in a Chinese film. Trailer and review after the break.
I positively thrill at the idea of going to see a film that I know nothing about and have no expectations for. Well, that’s not entirely true in this review’s case. I knew going in that the film starred Tony Leung and Jet Li so I had some expectations. But as to the actual plot, or for that matter the production, I was in the dark. Which is why when the film starts with both the murderous dragon lady Daji (Fan Bingbing) and her husband King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-fai) of the kingdom of Shang happily cuddling while her dragon tentacles (despite her being a fox spirit) rip apart a palace guard with poor timing, we know that things will be like this for the rest of the picture. It’s like a Chinese version of Lord of the Rings if that series had been caught in a Star Trek-esque transporter accident with Kerry & Kevin Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It has such breathless energy that most Hollywood productions could make three films out of the efforts of this one film. The cast throw themselves at their roles with such gusto and hamminess that their limitations as Thespians are quickly glossed over. That the special effects occasionally lags and splinters under the massive strain placed on it by the film’s producers isn’t a detraction at all.
The plot is the film’s main weapon against all comers. Its source material, a 16th century novel by author Xu Zhonglin, allows any deficiencies to be dismissed as window dressing gone wrong. It builds a world where you’re told, in capital letters, “THIS IS HOW THE WORLD OF LEAGUE OF GODS WORKS. QUESTION IT IF YOU MUST, PUNY MORTAL!” Case in point, nominal main hero Lei (Jacky Heung) is the guy with an axe to grind against the Kingdom of Shang but despite having the required “Father is Killed” by evil General Leopard (Louis Koo) of Shang backstory, his story takes a backseat to the constant special effects he’s required to be in. This means we have to learn about his backstory almost by osmosis: his discovery of Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) leads to his reveal of his father’s wish that he learn to fly (Lei’s tribe have wings on their backs, naturally) and his raid at the beginning of the film with the soldiers of Xiqi (a rival nation to Shang and the film’s good guys) with his brother-in-arms, the Prince of Xiqi, leads to how his father died at the hands of the aforementioned General Leopard.
Jet Li plays the wizard Master Jiang who laughs a lot, wears white robes, has a white beard, kicks arse at the beginning of the film, gets caught by one of Daji’s reverse ageing spells and spends the rest of the film being Gandalf the Forgetful. Li is one of the film’s highlights, crackingly funny and energetic while the rest of the cast can’t understand how he can be so calm about King Zhou’s pact to have his soul (and by extension his kingdom and soldiers) claimed by the evil spirit Black Dragon. I say, if Jet Li’s not worried, neither should any of us. Tony Leung and Fan Bingbing gorge themselves on the script, smiling, scowling, cackling, bellowing and generally having the most fun being on these huge sets, the elaborate costumes and gleeful anarchy on screen. The characters are having so much fun getting into each CG-laden scene and spouting utter script confectionary doing insane things that we hardly notice the CG gets hoary in places (young Jet Li is worse than Jeff Bridge’s CG face in Tron: Legacy) or that the distances covered by each character are continent sized. It’s a movie in which a CG kung fu baby farts a giant security guard crab in half and destroys an undersea castle in the process. Nobody’s winning an Oscar for acting on this one.
Yet, at the end of the film, Lei’s not the guy to strike the final blow, despite being the guy who finds the outsider heroes Naza (Wen Zhang), a creature that comes in human and bizarre Phil Tippet-Studios CG baby forms, and Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), a bio-armoured hero of renown who has a cyber-dog. Hopefully, I’m not spoiling things for you by telling you Jacky Heung is the stuntman son of the film’s producers. Angelababy fares much better in this film than she did in Independence Day: Resurgence or Revengeance or ReTerminated or whatever the title of the latest one was. In that film, her purpose is just “Pilot, Chinese, Female. Shoots things in a plane and cries when her family gets wiped out and is hit on by the film’s nerd character.” Here, despite only being in the film for the middle third, and mark you this is only a two-hour movie, her presence is warm, quirky and reassuring. She’s a tool of General Leopard, literally, and she is caught in the tragedy of being a mole beaming everything she and Lei do back to Leopard and then having her memories erased at the end of each day by Leopard. Despite having a love story, literally parachuted into the picture, Lei and Butterfly have an organic chemistry and their arc resolves quite satisfactorily.
Wen Zhang’s Naza acts aloof for most of the film, despite being sent by Jiang to help Lei, and comes across as that female friend you’ve got in the bar who refuses to talk with your other female friend because she’s secretly jealous of her. It’s a real bizarre performance and is coupled with the most off-putting CG baby scenes which means you kind of sit there in the cinema, slack-jawed at what you’re watching, hoping things get explained. They don’t but then after an hour of this relentless pace, you get used to the thinner air that director Hui is doling out. By the end of the film, where the world’s largest CG troll (he’s Godzilla-sized) gets Hulk-dropped into the Xiqi fortress by Daji doing a Rita Repulsa and making the troll in the first place, you perfectly happy to see what the hell happens next while never asking why such a film with its title has no gods nor league in it?
Director Hui has a background in visual effects and first unit assistant directing under maestro Tsui Hark and it clearly shows, as he’s more confident placing his cast in CG scenes than he is in putting them in performances. I think he’ll make a great director someday but he needs smaller pictures to work on as his weakness is acting and actor placement. The film’s makers clearly wanted to make a CG-laden film with big sets, massive performances and razor-sharp pacing. What they got was a film where the ideas are bigger than the dialogue, the performances are bigger than the ideas and the whole exercise is to show that China can make big, loud and crazy films. For my money, the Chinese way of making nutty epics is more fun than Hollywood.
Messy and silly, League of Gods ends on the promise of a sequel and for all its energy and effort, I hope it happens