Monday, February 13, 2012
From the Rental Vault (1998 & 2009): The Storm Riders and The Storm Warriors
The Storm Riders was released in 1998. It tells the story of two boys -- Nie Feng (or Wind in English) and Bu Jingyun (or Cloud) -- each orphaned when the evil Xiang Ba (Lord Conquer) seeks out the most powerful apprentices he can find to cement his dominion. Both, along with Qin Shuang (Frost), grow to become mighty warriors and masters of supernatural fighting skills, serving Lord Conquer whom they believe to be a benevolent teacher. But when Lord Conquer learns his destiny may also fall at the hands of the pair prior to his climactic battle with Jian Sheng (Sword Saint), he devises a way to divide, trick and defeat them. Wind and Cloud must overcome tragedies and personal demons, past and present, to defeat Lord Conquer and avenge their losses.
In 2009, co-stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng reunited in the same roles for The Storm Warriors, a story taken from another arc of the same comic. In the sequel, their home has been invaded by the Japanese warlord Jue Wushen (Lord Godless), who has poisoned and imprisoned all of the martial arts masters who might oppose him. Cloud has allowed himself to be captured to try to protect his friend Chu Chu and the great master Wuming (Nameless). Although with Wind's help he, Nameless and Chu Chu escape Lord Godless, they are weakened and realize they cannot fight the warlord while he wears his invincible armor. They seek Lord Wicked for training in the evil martial arts to become powerful enough to defeat Godless, yet Lord Wicked will teach only Wind. Cloud, he says, is too ruthless. Wind may have a chance to return from the evil ways if he learns them, but Cloud could not. Nameless also trains Cloud to fight Lord Godless, who seeks the Dragon Bone from the imprisoned Chinese emperor. The heroes will confront him, but even if they defeat the warlord, will Wind be able to shed the influence of evil that has almost consumed him?
It's all very comic-booky -- unless your name is Richard Dawkins, there's no way someone named "Lord Godless" is anything other than a villain -- but there are some wonderful reflections on relationships, destiny, the cost of evil, self-sacrifice, nobility and more contained within both stories. Riders special effects are obviously dated but still not bad, and Warriors takes full advantage of blue-screen filming to fully realize a world of myth and legend with human beings at its center. But both movies drown their interesting ideas and decent performances with overlong fight and training sequences and storyline elements that go nowhere. In Riders, Lord Conquer's battle with Sword Saint takes up several minutes of screen time but just delays the villain's confrontation with Wind and Cloud. In Warriors, the quest for the Dragon Bone fuels much of Lord Godless' evil acts but once it's found it's more or less forgotten.
Of the two, Warriors probably spends the most time wandering around without doing much -- the visuals are spectacular but it seems like directors Danny and Oxide Pang got so enthused about what they could do with modern CGI that they forgot to infuse their scenery with story. Riders lingers too long and could drop a plot thread or two as well, but it doesn't feel quite as padded.
The best comic books are written by people steeped deep in the themes of the great literature and art of their societies, both Western and Eastern. They use that knowledge to fuel what seem to be simple stories that appeal to a wide audience because they touch on those great themes. Sometimes those become not just great comic book movies but great movies period. And sometimes they're muddied by moviemakers who could have done better by investing more in transmission of the thought behind the material they're adapting and a little less in recreating the look or the feel of it.