Thursday, May 12, 2005

MOVIES: 'Daggers' not too sharp

Let's do the video review thing!
‘House of Flying Daggers’

Kung-fu movies aren’t for everyone, I’ll admit. The violence, madcap pace and often rather inane plots tend to appeal to a select crowd.

But a few years back, along came “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Ang Lee’s fine flick won several Academy Awards and fused classical storytelling and elegant visuals with high-kicking martial arts action. Call it “art-fu.” It made millions and won over audiences of all tastes.

Now, the latest in this “art-fu” genre is Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” which stars “Dragon” co-star Zhang Ziyi. Set in ninth-century China, it’s an epic tale of love, war and betrayal.

It features the signature visuals of “art-fu”: stunning cinematography, and slow-motion, visually inventive battle scenes that are like moving paintings.
Yet, this “art-fu” flick doesn’t connect. It’s gorgeous to look at, but the overwritten plot and banal script never really grabs the heart like such “art-fu” movies as “Dragon” or even Zhang Yimou’s own “Hero” of last year.

Ziyi is Mai, a mysterious young blind woman who has ties to the “House of Daggers,” an elusive rebel organization battling the Chinese throne. Soldier Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes undercover and on the run with her in an attempt to learn more about the House of Daggers. The army gives chase, as Jin tries to balance his secret loyalty to the throne with a growing affection for Mai.

Based on looks alone, “Daggers” succeeds. There’s some amazing sequences here, including knife-hurling battles in fields, a snow-drenched showdown, and a fantastic and elaborate ambush set in a bamboo forest, with fighters dancing in trees like monkeys.

But eventually it begins to feel like all style, no substance. There’s very little chemistry between any of the actors, whose performances range from too restrained to scenery-chewing awfulness.

The strained, slow-moving love story ultimately takes over, and by the end, I was ready to start fast-forwarding through the longing, achingly poised shots of lovers staring forlornly into the distance. A two-hour movie easily could have been edited down into a punchier 90-minute film.

The plot in “art fu” movies isn’t always smooth-running, but “Daggers” is particularly bumpy. If you look at “Daggers” as a kind of “art-fu” slide show, you’ll get more out of it than if you take it as seriously as its producers apparently did.
**1/2 of four

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