leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Director He Ping's large-scale historical adventure gets off to a slow start but blossoms into a rollicking cross between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. China, at the beginning of the 8th century: Sir Lai Xi (Jiang Wen), a Japanese warrior attached to the court of the Tang emperor, has been granted permission to return home after 25 years of service in the empire's wild western frontier. His last mission is to escort Wen Zhu (Vicki Zhao), the comely daughter of a respected general, to safety in the capital city of Changan before hostile Turkish forces reach her father's outpost. Just before they leave, Lai receives new orders: He is to apprehend Lt. "Butcher" Li (Nakai Kichi), a once-respected soldier who deserted rather than obey orders to cold-bloodedly slaughter Turkish prisoners of war, mostly women and children. The fugitive Li, missing for many years, has recently resurfaced in the region. At the same time, a heavily guarded caravan carrying a set of awesomely powerful relics of the Buddhist monk Shakyamuni starts out from India for Changan by way of the 18-Mile Fortress at the edge of the Gobi Desert. A sandstorm overwhelms the caravan and the only survivors are Zimo (Li Haibin), a nervous and inexperienced soldier, a pious young monk (Yun Zhou) and Li, who happened to be crossing the same stretch of desert dressed as a Turkish nomad. Zimo selflessly saves the stranger's life, and Li repays the favor by offering to accompany the caravan to its destination. He's joined by four old comrades-in-arms, who leave their settled lives as farmers to serve their old commander again, as well as an elderly fighter nicknamed "Old Diehard" (Wang Deshun) and a child who wants to be a swordsman when he grows up. Because the caravan is traveling under official charter, Lai forms a temporary alliance with Li to protect it until it reaches Changan, where they'll have their showdown. Matters are complicated by the machinations of amoral bandit king Master An (Wang Xueqi), who's been hired by the Turks to capture the caravan. Neither as bleakly funny as Sergio Leone's Westerns nor as camp as retro pulp like RAIDERS, He Ping's costume epic is thoroughly old-fashioned entertainment, teeming with pitched battles, strategic retreats, bandits, belly dancers, lumbering camels and a finale that packs a whale of a supernatural whammy.