Continuing to thrill audiences into his 60s, Jackie Chan has truly become a living icon in the world of Action and Martial Arts movies with a resume that spans back to the birth of the Martial Arts renaissance in Hong Kong. Despite a few missteps in recent times, he’s at his best with the merging of death-defying stunts and family-friendly comedy, which is what’s in store in his latest effort from director Jia Yan available January 21 on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from WellGo USA.
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Trying to move up the ranks, Yan Fei (Austin Lin) looks to solve a mystery in the village which soon leads him to Pu Songling (Jackie Chan), a local eccentric who tells stories to kids about battling monsters and demons. Realizing there’s a grain of truth to the stories, he sets out to become an apprentice monster hunter that battles various monsters that have escaped into the human world. Eventually learning that the village mystery is tied to the other secret involving missing girls being abducted throughout the area, the two soon encounter Yan Chixia (Ethan Juan) who’s looking for Xiaoquan (Elaine Zhong), a long-lost love of his that he believes is in the area. Once the truth about their connections is made, Yan Fei and Songling are forced to battle a dangerous and deadly force more powerful than they expected, to save the human race.
At its best, “Knight of Shadows” offers up plenty to like about it. Like most Chinese blockbusters, that is due to the grand-scale spectacle included throughout the film that plays into the overarching storyline from writers Boham Liu and Jian Wen. From the very beginning, we’re given a huge setpiece involving Chan out hunting a great sea-beast creature that is a major immersion into the film focusing on the massive beast in the water. Battles involving magical beings teleporting out of bronze mirrors, a fight between the demons and the group at a respectable restaurant and the fight between the two demons who float around on trails of flying scrolls among the tree-tops of a lake-clearing that look fluid, fun and over-the-top. The finale, though, takes this over-the-top where it transports everyone into an alternate dimension through the wand. There, they begin utilizing their magic to fight each other amid crumbling pagodas, skyscrapers and crumbling rocks that are a pure spectacle to watch.
As well, “Knight of Shadows” also offers up plenty of heart in the right places. The existence of monsters and demons as mischievous beings living among humanity and only being able to see them through magic incantations offers a great premise for a grand, monster-filled comedy where the usual assortment of mishaps occur during the battles that are the trademark of Chan’s physical performances. From smashing into wooden poles and walls, chasing around his own disembodied limbs running chaotically around to getting into comically choreographed fights with brainwashed onlookers, helps to make for a fun time. Combined with more traditional comedic effects including Chan’s legendary propensity for quips or making faces at a situation that doesn’t call for it, the over-the-top nature of the film allows for a nice infusion of classic Chan-style comedy into the mix. As well, the love story that blossoms in the second half featuring Xioaquan and Chixia has plenty of strong heartwarming elements here, getting plenty of play as to how the finale develops which is quite fun. These aspects make the film rather enjoyable.
Still, there are some problems in “Knight of Shadows.” Most of the problems stem from the fantastical storyline being used as a crux to throw an abundance of CGI on-screen for the sake of actual storytelling. The constant use of floating orbs, smoke-screens or disembodied objects being used not just from the women transporting themselves through the village but also gets a workout from Songling’s magical wand. That he uses to continuously conjure up spells and magical protections against the various monsters he’s hunting, offers even more over-the-top CGI. These elements move the film into a lighthearted fantasy that can make for a troubling immersion into the story where the disconnect from reality watching people interact with obvious and weakly-rendered computer-generated animals, objects and demons instead of facing reality. That also robs the film of having Chan face any real people head-on as he just simply stands there waving a brush at things instead of actually doing anything.
The other real problem here is the convoluted and overblown screenplay. Writers Liu and Wen tend to focus exclusively on throwing the characters into one situation after another with no real rhyme or reason instead of making sense of anything that occurs in the meantime. By bringing in Chixia, who’s later revealed to also be a demon looking for Xiaoquan during her rampage in the village, serves very little here as that’s dropped early on and even ties into the trouble with the final half. This is not only excessive CGI overload seeing characters fly around in the vastness of space but the decision to go for the romantic conclusion to the storyline means the film ends on a whimper. The fight is meaningless and doesn’t have any bearing on the outcome where the film heads off into simply convoluted matters featuring their love story taking over their destinies together. On the whole, these elements do come off rather strongly and hold this back quite heavily.
“Knight of Shadows” feels fun and over-the-top at the right places yet still maintains too many faults with the CGI and some underwhelming storytelling. It’s worth a look if you’re willing to go along with the fantasy elements or a die-hard fan of Chan’s filmography, while those that have been burned by his recent output might not find this one too appealing.