Lord Conquer, played by the infinitely awesome Sonny Chiba, is a twisted master of the martial arts that’s bent on controlling all of China. Thanks to a tip from one of his confidants that has psychic powers, he discovers the names of two young boys who, if brought together, will give him the power he needs to rule over the land. Being as ruthless as he is, Lord Conquer sends his clan to butcher the families of the two boys to acquire them for his own. The boys, Wind and Cloud, are oblivious to the fact that Lord Conquer is the reason their parents are dead, so they pledge their lives to him and train under him willingly. After 10 years of training, the two are nearly unstoppable. But when Lord Conquer announces his daughter will be married to Wind, a rift is formed between the two brothers, one that may lead to the downfall of everything Lord Conquer has achieved.
A bizarre amalgamation of the grandiose epic fantasy of Yimou Zhang and the sensibilities of anime and video games, Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders (based on the comic of the same name) seems to be Hong Kong’s answer to brainless, Hollywood actioners. To be quite honest, it’s hard to believe this is directed by the same man that co-directed the brilliant Infernal Affairs, easily one of the best films of the decade. I guess it shows how much a director can grow in four years; either that, or Alan Mak did all the heavy lifting. But I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here; The Storm Riders really isn’t a bad film. It’s a spectacle that will certainly please fans of over-the-top mystical martial arts action and will likely entertain those that don’t either, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
The first thing that’s going to make-or-break The Storm Riders for the viewer is the heavy usage of CG. If you’re at all looking to take this film seriously, you’re going to have to check your expectations at the door and suspend all disbelief. Even though The Storm Riders was made in 1998, the CG is laughable, looking more like something made in the very early experimental stages of its usage. To put it bluntly, the quality here isn’t much better than a cut-scene from a PSOne era Square RPG. Mixing that with live-action, you can imagine it’s going to elicit far more laughs than oohs and aahs. When taking into consideration that around this same time period CG had evolved pretty respectably in the US, it’s easy to get the impression that that The Storm Riders is a low-budget B-movie, but it’s anything but. While $10 million US (converted) may not sound like a lot to pour into a film, Hong Kong cinema to this day is still being produced for that amount (and sometimes significantly less), so this was a pretty large-scale film monetarily for its time.
Action scenes are a major part of The Storm Riders, and for the most part they turn out to be the strongest aspect of the film. The fight scenes come off as a live-action fighting game, complete with all sorts of neat magical attacks that are very fun to watch. Unlike some of the CG-heavy scenes that include flying and full-on green screen, these epic encounters hold up very well as they enhance the over-the-top nature of the battles. Magical projectiles, fire-barriers, giant sword strikes, and elemental summons are just the tip of iceberg when it comes to what you'll witness during these circus-style duels. And it's these portions of the flick are what will keep you watching until the end, as story-wise The Storm Riders is a muddied mess. Characters disappear for long periods of time and then return with little explanation, motivations are barely developed, magic-usage is delegated to only certain people and why that is is never touched upon, the acting is so exaggerated you’ll be laughing uncontrollably (you can just never get enough of a guy screaming at the sky out of frustration), and the romantic elements are painfully cliché. Things do actually make a semblance of sense, but all-in-all The Storm Riders is not a film to gravitate towards if you’re looking for a strong narrative. Crazily enough, the US cut is 38-minutes shorter; I can only imagine what incomprehensible nonsense that is.
Simply put, The Storm Riders is a cheesy, schlocky, and melodramatic fantasy flick with little substance but a whole lot of (dated) flash. If you’ve ever wanted to see how another country does a summer blockbuster, look no further. And seriously, can you honestly pass up a film that includes Sonny Chiba rocking an epic ‘stache and a guy that pulls off his own arm? Didn’t think so.
For the first time in the US, Discotek releases not only the international version of The Storm Riders on DVD, but also the uncut Hong Kong version as well. Both cuts are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and hold up quite well, although unfortunately what will be the preferred cut for many, the original version, is interlaced. Still, there’s no print damage to speak of and colors are represented well, albeit a touch on the soft side. While the international cut gets the treatment it deserves, a solo Dolby Digital 2.0 English track, the uncut version gets both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Cantonese tracks. The DTS track is great, with tons of booming bass, spatial effects and great use of surround which makes for an immersive experience. The optional English subtitles for the uncut version are well done and free of any glaring errors.
The usual suspects show up in the extras department, including a sit-down interview with director Andrew Lau (in English!) and featurettes on the making of the film as well as the creation of the special effects. There’s some quality information going on in all of these pieces for fans, such as the film’s comic roots, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with the cast and crew. Sadly, there are no Sonny Chiba sightings in any of these. Also included are character profiles, cast and crew bios, a production stills gallery, trailers for both versions of the film, and previews of upcoming Discotek releases (bring on Burning Paradise and Taxi Hunter!)
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