The Storm Warriors Review
Back when Cine Asia announced the UK release of The Storm Warriors - a sequel of to The Storm Riders - I was certainly curious as I enjoyed the original film somewhat more than most. For those that have never seen the original it was an extravagant production by Hong Kong standards back in 1998, a film that embraced special effects and was in many ways ahead of its time. The story was that of a Warlord seeking dominance over China who raises two students – Wind and Cloud – to help achieve his goals but the circumstances in which he obtains them eventually leads to his undoing.
Based on a popular comic-book series the lead characters of Wind and Cloud in the first film were hardly the heroic sort, and more the lesser of two evils that we support merely as a by-product of their circumstances and the man who twists their will to suit his needs. Cloud in particular was quite a nasty piece of work, having killed hundreds of innocent people at the behest of his master. I actually revisited the original to refresh my memory before watching The Storm Warriors, but as it turns out I need not have bothered as beyond the Wind and Cloud characters’ look and name (and the actors, with Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok returning), they feature no story crossover whatsoever.
In The Storm Warriors Wind and Cloud are very much the heroes of the piece, and indeed heroes of their time along with their master, a martial arts legend known as Nameless (Kenny Ho). The trio are in a bit of a pickle as the film opens though, held captive by Lord Godless (Simon Yam), an evil Warlord type who seeks dominance over China and to do that he intends on proving his mastery of the martial arts. Soundly beating Cloud, Wind and Nameless the three narrowly escape and head out with a simple plan – train and defeat Godless before he lays waste to their homeland. This takes Wind and Cloud to the Piggy King’s brother Lord Wicked, where Wind chooses the ‘dark side’ in order to grow stronger that much faster, while Cloud returns to his master to learn some new sword techniques. Meanwhile Godless sends out his best evil warriors to seek out the trio…
As my synopsis suggests, this is a very simple tale, the type we see all the time in martial arts films though I found The Storm Warriors to be more shallow than most. First and foremost the characters are all extremely bland, with Wind and Cloud the stoic hero types, never showing emotion, and in this film they are not given any back story at all. We are merely asked to accept them as heroes of China, saviours to the people with nary a hint of evidence in sight. Beyond these key figures you have their master who is more of the same, Lord Wicked ditto, and then we have two female characters. Chu Chu (Yan Tang) accompanies them from the start and is part of their group. It’s clear she only has eyes for Cloud, though he is emotionally stunted and in their one proper scene together is very cold to her. Then you have Second Dream (Charlene Choi) who turns up shortly after they set out on their training mission. Who exactly she is to them is rather vague, though apparently a letter she sent to Wind in the past means their meeting here in person for the first time is a big deal. However the moment was completely lost on this viewer as it all seemed very random, meaning the longing looks and gentle piano music that swells as they embrace came over as quite amusing rather than the intended reaction.
These awkwardly handled and woefully underwritten relationships between the heroes and their companions makes the character moments rather dull, and more disastrously they affect some key moments in the final act which fall flat due to the non-existent character development. Even the big bad, Lord Godless is a dreadfully boring character, evil through and through meaning no interesting shades of grey and once again there is simply no development to be had. He has a son vying for power within his ranks but that comes to nothing and seems like a pointless addition to the storyline, as do a few other developments later in the proceedings involving a dragon bone and the emperor who he’s taken captive, which add nothing to the story as it stands. Really the best I can say of the story is it provides a backdrop for the action, and the best I can manage of the characters is that most of them look the part. And hey, there’s a weird looking walking-corpse serving the good guys!
Ultimately it seems that the Pang Brothers (who had a hand in the screenplay and direct the film) have more interest in style than substance, as what it lacks in the script department it certainly tries to make up for in the presentation. Technology has moved on in great strides since the original film came out in 1998, both in Hong Kong and all over the world, so it’s not much of a surprise that The Storm Warriors has some very accomplished effects. Even the digital sets (which are used throughout) look the part, helped a little by the look of the film which sees colour frequently drained out of the backgrounds making the characters stand out that much more. If you hadn’t worked it out already The Storm Warriors is a period fantasy piece so the action is all flying swords, energy bursts with lots of ripple effects and colour splashes and this all holds up very well on screen. So kudos to the effects teams, but I was also quite taken with the direction The Pang Brothers took the action in which naturally is more about editing than actual martial arts ability in this kind of production. Clearly influenced by 300 their use of varying camera speed and the ‘short and sweet’ nature of the action in the first hour make for some satisfying moments (a bridge fight involving Cloud is a highlight), while an early scene showing the troops Godless sends out laying waste to martial arts schools across the lands is a good example of that style working to great effect in a more general scene. It along with a flashback scene for Lord Wicked demonstrate a very stylised palette, with the former looking almost animated, while the use of slow-motion and camera pans make for two very unique (and often beautiful) sequences.
So it’s style over substance for sure, but I was actually finding some entertainment both in the action and in how awkward some of the character moments are, though of course your mileage really will vary in this regard. Unfortunately though the trademark final fight goes on far too long (accounting for a good 15-20 minutes of the runtime) and the ending is almost complete nonsense (to anyone but avid readers of the original comic it would seem) so most of the good I managed to find within the first hour was all but undone as I sat there wondering when it would end and then just what had happened.
The DiscThe Storm Warriors is released on a dual-layer disc coded for all regions. The film is presented in 1080/24p though the extras (with the exception of selected trailers) are all SD PAL so may not play on NTSC hardware (Japanese and USA Playstation 3 machines for example).
Please note the images used in this review are promotional stills and not captures from the disc.
PresentationAs noted in my main review the film has a stylised palette and barely a frame goes by without some digital tinkering giving the film a very processed look. However, there is plenty of detail to be found and the transfer here does a great job of reproducing the intended look for a sharp, richly textured image where you can make out skin pores and the individual hairs on all those lovely heads. I could see no instances of edge enhancement or compression artefacts on my viewings where I was left with a very high opinion of the transfer which pops at every opportunity.
The primary Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is very aggressive with lots of low-end and directional effects which invigorate the onscreen action. Dialogue and music are well balanced across the sound stage, making this a track that compliments the visual transfer very well indeed. There is also a Cantonese DD2.0 mix which I assume is aimed at the viewers listening to the film through their TV speakers. Then of course you have the optional English subtitles which are clear with no mistakes that I could see.
ExtrasHong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan is back doing commentary work for a UK company and once again proves he offers up some of the best researched and most engaging tracks around. His main focus is that of the cast and key crew members (director, action director and cinematographer in this case) on which he offers a lot of first-hand knowledge, along with well researched biographies delving into past, present and future along with links to other films. He presents this in a bite size format; focusing on the actor when they are on screen and moving on as is appropriate rather than just reeling it all off in one long chunk. As he works in the industry it’s certainly in his interest, but one thing Bey has always managed to do is to really sell a film no matter what its merits may be, and he does that here by focusing on the strengths and really playing on those. He really does a great job as an ambassador of sorts for Hong Kong cinema and this commentary track is no different, informative and very enthusiastic and well worth anyone’s time.
One small aside is that Bey confirms (as do many of the other extras) that the character of Chu Chu is actually also known as Muse, who some of you may remember from the original film (where she was portrayed by Shu Qi). To those who have seen The Storm Riders this will add some extra weight to the connection between her and Cloud, though really what I found more curious was how the role has changed drastically, from the cheeky inquisitive tomboy of Shu Qi to the introverted low-key presence here. The only similarities between the two are the pigtails and the ‘cute’ factor.
In addition to the commentary you will find 8 making-of featurettes, 2 special effects featurettes, 5 VFX progression reels and an interview gallery featuring the cast and directors. This content totals around 80-minutes and as previously mentioned, is all presented in SD PAL format.
The featurettes are of the promotional kind you would find on an official website, and indeed they all start and end with the same promo footage and a ‘coming in December 2009’ banner. The shortest is just 90 seconds while the longest is just under 5-minutes, with the average running time around 3-minutes. They consist of on-set behind-the-scenes and interview footage with cast and crew and focus on various aspects of the film such as characters, special effects, and action. While not particularly detailed I found them easy to digest and quite revealing in terms of showing how closely the film is modelled after the original comics and how certain aspects would surely play better to the home audience. The special effects and VFX progression reels (5 short clips showing the various layers of special effects and how scenes come together) are again brief but quite diverting as we get to see how the wonderful visuals were achieved.
The interview gallery features on-set interviews with the directors and the main cast. There is some overlap as clips from these interviews are used in the featurettes, but here you do get more time with each individual as they answer stock questions about the film, the production and in the case of the actors, their character. Very promotional in nature (“please enjoy the film” comments towards the end of several of the interviews) what I found most interesting about these is how complex and nuanced the characters apparently are. I guess the actors have to find something to talk about, and it’s at least nice to know they have some definition of where their character is emotionally, even if I felt it rarely comes across on the screen. There is some other good stuff here, I’d recommend the Pang Brothers for their “memorable scene” question where they detail accidents on set and Charlene Choi for just how darn loveable she is (and quite candid too I thought).
Rounding out the disc are a teaser and theatrical trailer for The Storm Warriors and 10 trailers for other titles from Cine Asia.
OverallAt the beginning Lord Godless states “The return of Wind and Cloud is worthless”….
Hmm, he could be on to something there. The amusing character names, some silly plot moments, some good action and pretty visuals kept me going for the first hour but that’s really not enough for a recommendation. The video extras are rather perfunctory in nature but the commentary is well worth your time but still, it’s one for the rental list rather than a purchase in my book.