Stylistically, this film is a bit all over the place – director Andrew Lau channels the desaturated look of many modern war movies in the opening scenes before switching to the lavish and neon-lit world of 1930’s Shanghai. It’s there we find political and war-time intrigue making an odd bedfellow with costumed superheroics.
The heavy blue tones of the cinematography, along with a blend of street-level violence (car bombs, assassinations) with a masked avenger evoke the feel of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” In the midst of all this we have Donnie Yen kicking butt in jaw-droppingly choreographed fight scenes, Shu Qi doing her best in a rather thankless role, and an over-the-top anti-Japanese sentiment that actually manages to eclipse Donnie Yen’s own Nippon-hating “Ip Man.”
If I have one serious complaint with the story, it’s that the Japanese are portrayed as so evil and get away with so much murder and bloodshed that you never really feel like the hero wins, regardless of the film’s old-fashioned “good vs. evil” pretensions. Much like the terror the Joker wrecks in the aforementioned Batman film, we’re left with a Pyrrhic victory at most for our protagonist. Not even the promise of a sequel with continued ass-kicking from Donnie Yen can stop this movie – for all its slick lighting and blindingly fast punches – from being kind of a downer.
I sense Western audiences are growing tired of the strong Chinese nationalism that seems to be necessary in martial arts films these days just to get them past the Chinese censor boards, but let’s be honest. If all you want is to see a 47-and-still-fit-as-hell Donnie Yen decimate dozens of opponents with his expert martial arts moves, then this is first class entertainment. 5 stars for an uneven blockbuster that never lets up on the spectacle even if it lets the viewer down from a story perspective.