Nearly two decades after Donnie Yen last co-directed with Barbara Wong in the unfunny action-comedy of Protege de la Rose Noire <見習黑玫瑰> in 2004, the martial arts superstar returns to the director’s chair in Sakra <天龍八部之喬峰傳>, a wuxia epic adapted from Jin Yong’s celebrated Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils novel.
Whereas the novel revolves around the three main protagonists including Qiao Feng (Kiu Fung in the Cantonese version), Duan Yu and Xuzhu, Yen chose to focus solely on the former. In Sakra <天龍八部之喬峰傳>, we first met Qiao Feng as a kid in the brief prologue before he grows up as an adult leading the Beggars’ Sect. One day, he finds himself being banished by the sect due to his treacherous Khitan origin and also accused of the murder of Mrs Ma’s (Grace Wong) deputy-chief husband.
Qiao Feng vows to find out the truth to prove his innocence but what follows next is unintentionally laughable. Not once but twice in two subsequent scenes, where Qiao Feng happens to be coincidentally in the wrong places at the wrong times after different eyewitnesses accused him of murdering his adoptive parents back home and later, a Shaolin master in the temple. The thing is, these otherwise dramatic scenes are depicted as if they are comedies of errors.
As the story goes on, we learn that Qiao Feng met Azhu (Chen Yuqi), a maid working for the Murong family, who is also an expert in disguise. She is there in the temple disguised as one of the monks trying to steal the yijin jing (martial arts manuals) for Murong Fu (Wu Yue). Their encounter leads to a gradual romance that feels awkward because Qiao Feng in the novel is supposed to be around 30 years of age.
But despite Donnie Yen’s usual charisma, the fact that he’s actually 59 years old in real life kind of stretches believability seeing him falling in love with a younger-looking Chen Yuqi’s Azhu. It would be more convincing if the relationship is more like a father figure treating her like his own daughter. It doesn’t help either when their on-screen chemistry lacks mutual passion and emotional weight, particularly with Yen’s stiff acting during the romantic moments.
Although Sakra <天龍八部之喬峰傳> runs over 2 hours at 130 minutes and is supposed to serve as a franchise starter, it was kind of baffling why the movie has to rush or skip certain crucial plot points. For instance, the second half of the movie falters with the haphazard introduction of Duan Zhengchun (Eddie Cheung), Ruan Xingzhu (Kara Wai) and Azi (Cya Liu).
Still, Sakra <天龍八部之喬峰傳> remains curiously watchable, thanks to Yen and Kenji Tanigaki’s visceral action choreography. The movie contains enough thrilling set pieces to keep you occupied with an effective mix of wirework, special effects and the gritty fighting style of a modern Donnie Yen action movie. The action is brutal and fast, even though you have to get used to the movie’s dimly lit cinematography.
The sound effects are incredible as you can feel the sheer intensity of every blow and impact of the fight scenes. This includes everything from Qiao Feng unleashing his signature “18 Dragon Subduing Palms” technique to dispatching his opponents with his acrobatic martial arts moves regardless of hand-to-hand combats or swift sword-fighting skills. Major action-packed moments like the opening fight scene between Qiao Feng and the monk in the restaurant and Qiao Feng’s one-against-many opponents in the manor. And given the fact that Wu Yue of 2017’s Pandora <殺破狼・貪狼> fame is added to the cast, we also get a noteworthy climactic one-on-one fight scene between Qiao Feng and Wu Yue’s Murong Fu.
Yen may have been unconvincing in portraying a thirtysomething martial arts master as depicted in Jin Yong’s novel. But if you can look past the age gap, it’s hard to deny that Yen still has what it takes to play a no-nonsense leading action hero.