After a decade of struggles and uncertainty, the mid-00s promised a brighter future for Hong Kong cinema. One of the rising stars of that era was Wilson Yip, a young director who had learned the ropes directing cheap B-flicks. He was well in the process of making a name for himself as an action director, riding the international success of Kill Zone (aka SPL). Yip followed up with Dragon Tiger Gate [Lung Fu Moon], an action-packed, CG-heavy comic book adaptation that would further cement his career. I really liked the film the first time around, so I was eager to find out if it still held up after all this time.
Yip spent the first 10 years of his career directing shlocky horror and action flicks. Like most Hong Kong directors, he learned the trade simply by making as many films as possible, picking up things along the way. While those first films did show promise, it wasn't until he directed Kill Zone that his career took a big leap forward. Yip tied his own success to the reboot of Donnie Yen's local career and the both of them would go on to become an international success team.
Dragon Tiger Gate is based on the manhua (yes, that's Chinese comic books to you and me) Oriental Heroes, a long-running action pioneer that started in 1970 and is still producing fresh material. Knowledge of the franchise is not required to enjoy this film though, Yip made sure the story is self-contained and the premise is so trope-heavy that you don't have to be a seasoned comic book reader to piece everything together. If you've seen a couple of martial arts films before, the only thing that might seem a little off is the franchise's post-apocalyptic setting.
The plot is pretty basic. Two estranged brothers find each other again, but on different sides of the fence. Tiger is still part of the martial arts dojo where they first met, Dragon is protecting a Triad boss in return for saving his life. When the two are finally reunited, a jade amulet threatens to uproot the criminal power equilibrium in Hong Kong. The amulet is owned by Shibumi and is gifted to his nearest confidant, as a token of respect. Whoever has it in his possession controls the criminal activities inside the city. The rest of the story is just a matter of filling in the blanks.
Hong Kong doesn't have a strong comic book culture and it kind of shows. Yip does his best to inject some visual comic book cues into his film, but the translation from paper to screen isn't always on point. The animated intro feels a bit random, the costumes and hairdos often look plain silly. It's a good thing Yip has some impressive camera tricks up his sleeve, the fine cinematography does the rest. Stunning use of lighting and colors make Dragon Tiger Gate a real looker. The only other thing that could people off is the presence of a hefty dose of CG. While the film is far from an excessive CG fest, it does have a sizable impact on the overall visual impression.
The music here is negligible, but that's not too surprising. This kind of action film, and the Hong Kong ones in particular, rarely make use of their scores to further elevate themselves. It's not a terrible score for sure, it gets the adrenaline pumping and it provides the necessary background noise so there aren't any uncomfortable silences, but it's really just basic filler music that hardly has a shred of personal identity. You'll be hard-pressed to remember any of it once the film is over.
The cast is solid, but it does depend on what you value the most. There is some drama to wade through here, which can be a little problematic for actors like Nicholas Tse and Donnie Yen. But once the film jumps into the action sequences, their involvement starts to pay off big time. With films like these I tend to take the drama for granted (as long as it doesn't slow the film down too much), instead I prefer to focus on the action and the blitz factor. In that sense, the casting is very much on point and a real asset for this film.
Don't expect to see any genre-bending magic or great artistic merit here. Dragon Tiger Gate is pure genre work, a core action film that cares about kicking ass and looking cool, all the rest is a mere afterthought. Some truly superb action sequences underline those simple aspirations. The restaurant brawl in the beginning is one of the best action extravaganzas Yip has delivered so far, the finale is another clear high point in his career. It's these moments that make Dragon Tiger Gate rise above its peers.
If you're a fan of action cinema, this is an easy recommend. If you're not, it all depend on how forgiving you are when it comes to plot, dramatic impact and acting. If you want a more polished experience, it's probably best to check out the Ip Man films first, but if you're in the mood for a simple brawler then look no further. Dragon Tiger Gate sports some sublime action sequences, superb cinematography and a central duo that has the show aspect of martial arts down to a tee, all in the name of juicy entertainment.