Up until the middle of July in 1998, two Hollywood films held the opening-day box office records in Hong Kong: "The Lost World" and "Titanic". However, on the week of July 18th, a homegrown production usurped the top spot at the box office, posting over $2 million US in box office receipts in its first week. "The Stormriders", a martial arts fantasy epic based on a popular comic book, was the most eagerly anticipated movie of the summer in Hong Kong with its gamut of popular actors and actresses, CG-heavy special effects, and a lavish $10 million US budget (which is high by Hong Kong standards). Buoyed by its runaway success, it is now being released in select urban centers in North America.
The convoluted story, which stretches over ten years, begins with the merciless Lord Conquer (veteran Japanese actor Sonny Chiba) being told by the prophet Mud Buddha (Lai Yu-hung) that his long-awaited duel with the powerful Sword Saint (Anthony Wong of "Hard Boiled") will not occur for another ten years. He must also locate two young boys born on a defined date, named Wind and Cloud, as they are the keys to conquering the world and defeating Sword Saint in the future. Conquer finds the two boys, kills their parents, and takes them in, raising them as his own sons.
Ten years later, the boys have grown up in Conquer's court. Wind (Cheng Ekin of the "Young and Dangerous" franchise), whose father was killed and mother was seduced by Conquer, has grown up into a benevolent warrior, and is destined to be wed to Conquer's daughter, Charity (former Canadian commerce student turned Miss Asia 1995 Kristy Yang). Cloud (singer-turned-actor Aaron Kwok), whose sword-casting father also died at Conquer's hands, has grown up into your archetypal sullen youth, subject to mood swings and feelings of angst. However, despite his cold disposition, his martial arts prowess has blossomed, almost rivaling that of Conquer. And to further complicate matters, he is also in love with Charity. The story then sets the two heroes off on some related quests that ultimately culminate into a series of special effects-laden death duels and the prophesized arrival of Sword Saint.
"The Stormriders" comic series has been running for nine years strong, providing a wealth of material from which to craft a feature film. Despite the noble effort of scribe Manfred Wong to turn the first three years of the manga series into a cohesive screenplay, the end result on the screen is difficult and tedious to watch. The unfocused narrative meanders in every direction as it attempts to cram in too much story into a two-hour movie, and some familiarity with the comic book series would probably be necessary to sort out the machinations of the plot. Characters, both inconsequential and important, are introduced, discarded, and brought back again with alarming frequency, resulting in too many characters to care about, let alone keep track of. Though fans of the comic book may enjoy the 'gee whiz' factor from the inclusion of their favorite characters into the movie, no matter how immaterial to the plot, it is confusing for the rest of the audience. Finally, there is enough material in "The Stormriders" for at least an entire miniseries-- attempting to cover so much in so little time dissipates whatever momentum the story had to begin with, and it is certainly not helped by the laggard pacing.
On the other hand, "The Stormriders" does boast high production values and visual splendor. Director Andrew Lau eschews the gritty freehand camera work that he used in the "Young and Dangerous" series for a more cinematic style in line with the 'Tsui Hark look' of Hong Kong fantasy films. Lau also attempts to recreate the look and feel of the comic book via the use of striking insert scenes and unconventional framing-- the one-on-one battles, with the billowing hair and glinty-eyed looks, are reminiscent of those found in Japanese anime. The use of computer graphics is extensive in this movie, providing visual representations of the characters' supernatural powers, as well as some visually-arresting background scenery.
Performances are average. Cheng Ekin shows probably the most range as Wind, which is in direct contrast to the ultra-cool Aaron Kwok, who is perpetually morose throughout the pic. Sonny Chiba does have a commanding presence as the lead villain, but his performance is diminished by the obvious dubbing of his voice, as well as his moustache-twirling theatrics that are almost an institution in wu shu drama. Shu Qi, a veteran of Hong Kong adult movies, is interestingly cast against type as a klutzy and tomboyish herbalist, and fans of Hong Kong's 'alienated youth' movies will find it interesting to see Roy Cheung cast as a Shaolin Monk, instead of the pugnacious lout he usually plays.
"The Stormriders" is an ambitious attempt to bring homegrown films back to the forefront of the Hong Kong film market, which has been suffering due to both the economic turmoil that has gripped the region, as well as the brain-drain as its most talented people are heading to Hollywood. Unfortunately, despite the great elan that has been put into the production and the popularity of the source material, "The Stormriders" is an excessively long and drawn-out affair that would have benefited from a tighter script. If you are a fan of the manga, you might consider this movie a dream come true. But if you're unfamiliar with the comic book, like me, then there isn't much here to keep your interest.