In short: pretty good kick flick harmed by a crappy translation in the subtitles. It didn't help that the subtitles were very quick on the screen -- I read pretty damn fast, so subtitles usually don't bother me and I usually prefer subtitled versions, but the visuals were so gorgeous that I wanted to spend time looking at them and didn't get much of a chance to if I wanted to follow the plot. Toby reads more slowly than I do, and was sleepy, so kept losing track of what was going on. But he agrees it was visually lush.
The movie is set during the Tang Dynasty, as Empress Wu (historical person), who's been ruling the empire as regent for 8 years, is preparing for her official coronation. Officials are starting to be killed in a mysterious way where they burn up from inside, and nobody can solve the mystery. So she releases Dee (Westernized to "Detective" Dee, presumably because us Westerners would get confused as to why a judge/minister/court official is investigating mysteries) from the prison where he'd been sentenced to hard labor for 8 years for opposing her and leading a revolutionary faction. He sets to work, accompanies by the Empress' right-hand woman and bodyguard Jing'er, and Dongling (I'm using the subtitles' transliteration of the names), whose exact position I managed to completely miss, but who is also a well-trained fighter. As is Dee, which allows for a lot of fights.
Anyway, it drags a bit about the 3/4 mark, when we found ourselves sort of wishing for the fights to stop and the plot to get on with it. It also technically passes the Bechdel test thanks to a conversation between Wu and Jing'er early on, where we learn how much Wu trusts Jing'er and how loyal Jing'er is.
Jing'er is also, for the first 3/4 of the movie, a fantastic character who I really liked, but her characterization falls apart near the end. Until then, she's great and I love that when she hares off after an opponent Dee's reaction is "She knows where to meet us," and he continues doing what he's doing.
When Dongling first appeared on the scene, I thought "Uh-oh!" as the character is an albino, (albinos seem to be portrayed as evil more often than not in fiction), and wasn't much comforted when he was shown to be unnecessarily cruel in his first scenes.* But without revealing too much about the plot, I can say that I thought he ended up as my favorite character by the end. I also liked how Empress Wu is portrayed as a very ambitious woman who is willing to sacrifice everything for power, but without the usual detritus that surrounds portrayals of powerful women and turns them into ball-busting bitches. She is not a nice person by any means, but her primary concern is holding power and she subordinates everything to that and uses any means necessary except seduction.
I also liked the worldbuilding of this fantastical version of the Tang capital, with the ruins of the previous city underneath the current one hosting an underworld, the Phantom Bazaar. It is also, if you accept the premise that Taoist practices/beliefs like acupuncture are science in the world of this movie, a low-magic (or no-magic) world.
Lots of wire-fu, of course. (Sammo Hung was the action director.) There is also ridiculously over-the-top assassination attempts and people try to solve problems by throwing lots of expendable soldiers at them.
There is also, much to my surprise, stag-fu. You'll just have to watch it for yourself.
* He does wear a rather fetching bonnet. And dresses all in black, thus becoming the equivalent of the silver-haired character who dresses in black in Japanese anime.
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