Yet the movie delivers what matters: crowd-pleasing battles, gorgeous desert scenery, a dreamy almost other-worldly production design and a story unique (and improbable) enough to sweep up even the most jaded viewer.
The $65-million film was a massive hit in its native China earlier this year but comes to North America in a truncated version, cut down from 127 minutes to a scant 103. This may account for some of the erratic plotting, but I suspect the film’s Hong Kong writer-director Daniel Lee (“Black Mask”) was always more interested in arresting visuals than a coherent story.
Intriguingly the film imagines that an elite legion of Roman solders wandered along the Silk Road into China during the Han Dynasty, around 48 B.C., and got embroiled not only in local politics and conflicts but brought with them, in the words of their leader General Lucius (John Cusack), their own “family quarrel.”
For this fugitive legion is on the run from corrupt Roman leader Tiberius (Adrien Brody) even as they protect Tiberius’ own much younger brother (Jozef Lui Waite) whom he has already blinded and now intends to murder.
(For the record, there is no historical record of Roman soldiers fighting within China’s borders. The filmmaker says this as a historical wuxia epic meant to depict the Chinese sense of chivalry, but more likely it’s a chance to merge sword-and-sandal derring do with Asian martial arts.)
Chan plays Huo An, who commands something known as the Silk Road Protection squad, a kind of benevolent society-cum-pacifist warrior sect determined to keep the Silk Road open and free through brotherhood, tolerance and peace.
Naturally no one else has signed on to this peace plan. So you often witness the spectacle of Chan fighting defensively with his men —hurting no one very much— while yelling at everyone else, “Stop fighting!” This is amusing at first but gradually becomes more annoying as battles rage on.
By the time of the climatic battle pitting the disgruntled legionnaires against an army of their own Roman colleagues with warriors from 36 ethnic nations in northwestern China joining in no one is yelling “Stop fighting” anymore. The game is on.
For this battle Lee marshals his many extras, each in a different set of colorful warrior costumes, with extraordinary precision and symmetry. He over relies (and then some) on helicopter drone shots though and fairly often those extras are mostly stationary in the background.
Chan himself directed all the action, which mashes together kung fu and gladiator fighting. It always looks stagey, but the balletic precision of the actors thrusting, paring, twisting, turning, flipping and rolling off one another has a hypnotic quality, somewhat like a seemingly brutal staged wrestling match.
The film’s main theme is that of brotherhood among ethnic communities and international cooperation, interestingly coming in a movie from China, whose totalitarian government has run roughshod over many of the ethnic minorities within its ever-expanding borders.
But then again this is really an international production shot in China but with a cast jammed with Asian personalities along with the American actors. These include Korean singing idol Siwon Choi, a Chinese singing duo called the Chopsticks Brothers along with actresses Lin Peng (given an unfortunate unibrow by the makeup department) and Mika Wang.
As might be imagined, the acting is all over the place but much of it stiff and awkward. Worst of all, I hate to say, is Brody. Once an Academy Award-winning best actor, he sneers and struts in the villain role with all the nuance of a ham actor in a community playhouse. What happened to that career?
Chan looks mostly tired throughout the movie but perhaps he wore too many hats. He is the film’s producer as well as action director so his most relaxing times may have been in front of the cameras. None of his warmth and humor comes through, which is sorely missed.
Cusack does what’s expected in a fairly undemanding role that is possibly too heroic for the actor’s own good. Playing utter nobility is always a hard task.
The film lurches from sequence to sequence with subplots raised, such as feisty Cold Moon’s (Lin Peng) sudden love for Chan’s Huo An despite his having a wife and a wrongful accusation of smuggling against Huo An, that get lost in the shuffle.
One sequence though where Roman engineering and architectural techniques help Chan’s beleaguered forces rebuild the ancient city of Wild Geese Gate in 15 days is particularly noteworthy for its stirring widescreen images from DP Tony Cheung and Yau Chi-wai’s solid editing.
Interesting side note, according to Variety’s Maggie Lee, one of the best film critics in Asia, languages in this film include Mandarin, English, Hun, White Indian, Uyghur, Kusan, Saklar and Turkic.
Opens: September 4, 2015 (Lionsgate Premiere)
Production companies: Visualizer presents a Sparkle Roll Media, Huayi Brothers Media, Shanghai Film Group & Entertainment Development production
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Lin Peng, Choi Si-won, Joey Jozef, Mika Wang, Xiao Yang, Wang Taili
Director/screenwriter: Daniel Lee
Action director: Jackie Chan
Producers: Jackie Chan, Susanna Tsang
Executive producers: Jackie Chan, Wang Zhongjin, Ren Zhonglun, Zhou Moufei
Director of photography: Tony Cheung
Art directors: Daniel Lee, Thomas Chong
Music: Alvin Lai
Costume designer: Thomas Chong
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
R rating; 103 minutes