Dynasty Warriors buries its littered, low-key strengths under a deluge of CGI nonsense.
What does it mean to adapt the video game series Dynasty Warriors, itself an adaptation of the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, into a movie? A simple retelling of part of Three Kingdoms, which has been adapted into plenty of movies (like John Woo’s Red Cliff), comics, TV series, and other video games, can’t lay claim to the Dynasty Warriors name because the series evokes something far more specific — namely, super-powered versions of historical Chinese heroes taking on horde upon horde of enemy soldiers. Roy Chow’s film, while featuring invincible badass Lu Bu (Louis Koo) shooting magic out of a halberd, fails its source material by shifting the focus away from these large-scale battles and onto shallow, boilerplate political intrigue. That might actually be a good thing, though, as the massive battles that the movie does offer are terrible, mostly incoherent orgies of CGI nonsense. Everything you’d expect from the Dynasty Warriors name is rendered here as an ugly blur, leaving the bare-bones plot to do the heavy lifting.
That plot is mostly a retelling of the events leading up to the Battle of Hulao Pass, an early and entirely fictional event in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Dong Zhuo (a hopelessly underutilized Lam Suet) has taken control of the Imperial Court in Luoyang and deposed the boy Emperor. Three Han dynasty loyalists, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, seek the power of heroes to defeat Dong, and eventually team up with an alliance of 18 warlords led by Yuan Shao and Cao Cao, the man who tried to assassinate Dong, to march on Luoyang to face Dong’s legendary general, Lu Bu. Along the way, most of the warlords leave the alliance as personal motivations rise to the top and an emergent power struggle for the future of China comes into focus.
The path to the big battle is peppered with one-on-one duels which by and large fare much better than the military clashes, thanks to their focus on wuxia-flavored physical combat over the near-constant deluge of fireballs and lightning bolts that form the setpieces. But the surprise of Dynasty Warriors is that its relative strengths lie in its warriors simply talking to one another. Make no mistake, this is not a grand political epic with depth of story or character — in fact, it’s shallow all the way through — but watching warlords puff their chest and bigfoot each other is consistently more compelling than the ostensible main event. It’s just still not enough to make Dynasty Warriors into anything worthwhile.