The revival of the martial arts genre in the 1990s saw many movies spring out, some good, some entertaining, and some quite boring. Unfortunately, this remake of the King Hu movie in 1966 turned out to be the latter. There seemed to be a certain appealing factor missing, despite it's A-list cast of Brigitte Lin, Donny Yen, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, and loads of martial arts sequences. While it's not directed by Tsui Hark, who only produced it, there certainly are plenty of hints that he probably got his fingers all over this one.
As the story goes, set in the Ming Dynasty, the eunuchs are growing in power, and one of them, Tsao Siu Yan (Donnie Yen) takes control over the Eastern Chamber, and founded his own militia, the Black Arrow Troops. The introduction had us witness the prowess of this gang with their mean and thorny design of their arrows, and the almost magical way that it can turn around corners to hunt its prey. It set out Tsao as the one with the biggest, erm, attitude, ordering the murder of political rivals such as military secretary Yang, and in true Chinese fashion, giving the order to wipe out his entire lineage.
In comes our heroes Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung) and Yau Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin) who save the children and try to smuggle them to safety at the frontier. However, the long journey sees them stopping at the titular Dragon Inn in the middle of a desert, run by sultry innkeeper Jade (Maggie Cheung) who forms a rivalry with Yau for Chow's affections. It's only at the inn that things start to pick up, but I thought it seemed more like an extended everybody-get-together scene where our heroes congregate with their enemies at the lobby of the inn, each not wanting to commit in making the first move to eradicate the other. One looking for a means to escape, while the other group stalling them until the main troops can arrive. At times, they exhibit a battle of wits, something like scene in Swordsman where each group tried to get a leg up on the other.
In the movie, I thought Maggie Cheung had a field day with her character, and steals the thunder from Brigitte Lin. Her Jade flip flops from side to side, depending on who's giving her current advantage, and with her shifting loyalties, you just didn't know who's side she's on, when you realize that she's actually acting on her own interests in preserving the way of her life - conning lecherous folks, killing them for money and then removing the evidence by serving their bodies as meat buns. Tony Leung's Chow is somewhat similar to Chow Yun-Fat's Li Mu Bai, except that here his martial arts skills aren't that really great, and has to rely on cunning and charm to save his troupe.
The two weakest characters here belong to Donnie Yen, whom we don't really see much of except for the finale fight, but the most disappointing one was Brigitte's role as Yau, which is somewhat an uninteresting character in being there just to act as a proxy, and love interest, contrary to the notion that she might be a very skilled swordswoman, given her top billing on the poster / DVD sleeve. I guess after seeing her as Invincible Asia in Swordsman II, anything less would seem like a disaster.
Nonetheless, for martial arts genre fans who love it for the swordsplay and kungfu, then you can count on the action choreography of Chng Siu-Tung and Yuen Tak to deliver the goods. While it's usually more of the same type of choreography (creative clanging of swords), there's a single scene at the climatic battle that on one hand drew laughter (of the serves you right kind), and on the other, just make you marvel at the audacity of it all, as you almost definitely won't see it coming, nor develop in such a manner, and when it does, just puts a smile on your face.
Having not seen the original version by King Hu, I am interested now to see how his vision contrasted with the more standard fare that we're used to from Hong Kong, especially from Tsui Hark. Don't keep your hopes up too high when you're watching this version, and for Brigitte Lin fans, I think another round of Swordsman II might be more satisfying.
The region free by Tai Seng Video Marketing is presented in letterbox format, and the visual transfer is only average, as if transferred directly from a VHS source. Audio is available in either Cantonese, Mandarin or the English language, with subtitles available in English only. An 18 chapter scene selection is available for you to zoom into a particular sequence. An audio commentary is available and provided by Ric Meyers (which the DVD sleeve has listed as a Hong Kong Film Expert). He provided quite an interesting insight as to how the characters each represent different aspects in the run up to the Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, and how Tsui Hark usually infuses these aspects into characters in his movies, together with political metaphors. He provides general information on Hong Kong movies, and would make interesting listening to for anyone new to Hong Kong cinema.
While this is the extended director's cut, the extras are quite lacking, with only trailers and filmographies available. Trailers are provided for Dragon Inn Hong Kong Trailer (3:14) and the US trailer (1:33). Others include Running Out of Time (1:37), Armageddon (1:38) and The Duel (0:57), the earlier two all redubbed in English. In the Filmographies section for Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Tony Leung, the text is presented scrolling upwards, and thankfully you can press the pause button to read everything on screen, before letting it all scroll away. Nothing much except to give you a very brief introduction to the actors and their body of work, strictly for those who have no idea who they are.