Another Three Kingdoms-set swordplay film, The Lost Bladesman tells the tale of Guan Yuchang a.k.a. Guan Yu, the legendary Shu General and Chinese deity worshipped by gangsters, cops and also merchants in Hong Kong. Guan Yu is revered for various reasons, including his incomparable toughness, stalwart loyalty and long silky beard. Guan Yu is also worship-worthy because heís played in The Lost Bladesman by the worldís number one martial arts star, Donnie Yen, whoís also known for his incomparable toughness Ė though his loyalty and facial hair are of lesser renown. Despite his small stature (Guan Yu is famously large) and lack of a long beard (Yen trims it early in the film) Yen is decent casting, if only for his physical presence and his martial arts skills. A bigger problem: the movie itself.
Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, The Lost Bladesman covers a portion of Three Kingdoms lore when Guan Yu was captured by Wei general Cao Cao, played here by a devilishly charismatic Jiang Wen. Cao Cao wants Guan Yu as an ally, and asks for his help to kill rival general Yan Liang (Chin Siu-Ho). Guan Yu agrees, his righteousness permitting him to help a foe if it reduces casualties. However, Guan Yu refuses extended service to Cao Cao and eventually asks for release to join up with his lord, Shu general Liu Bei (Alex Fong Chung-Sun). Cao Cao honors Guan Yu, freeing him along with Qilan (Betty Sun), the secret object of Guan Yu's affection and one of Liu Beiís intended wives. However, during his trek, Guan Yu meets mounting opposition, all allies of Cao Cao, each refusing to let him return to Liu Bei alive.
The Lost Bladesman features legendary conflicts and characters, but leaves much in the background in favor of Guan Yu and Cao Cao, whose enmity is matched by their respect for one another Ė well, at least the respect that Cao Cao has for Guan Yu. As played by Jiang Wen, Cao Cao is an honorable rogue who wishes to unify China even if it means doing nasty things. In contrast, Guan Yu is super-righteous, and wouldn't dream of doing unseemly stuff like courting Qilan while she's promised to his sworn brother Liu Bei. Meanwhile, Cao Cao regards Guan Yu's unwavering heroism with glowing respect, and will keep his word to Guan Yu even if it means going against his own allies. This sounds like one epic bromance. John Woo should be proud.
Well, John Woo would be proud of the idea, but perhaps not the execution. Despite possessing worthwhile themes and iconic characters, the film feels plodding. Many scenes consist of indistinguishable characters spouting pages of expository dialogue. Also, the filmís bromance seems one-sided, with Cao Cao's admiration for Guan Yu coming off as overbearing compared to Guan Yu's subdued return affection. Donnie Yen's subpar performance as Guan Yu doesn't help; Yen showed growth as an actor in the Ip Man movies, but here he's all squinty eyes and unseen emotion. The script is partially at fault. Guan Yu doesn't have much of a character arc; he starts heroic and stays heroic, and it's only the people around him who change or are revealed to be different than what they appear. Guan Yu does have a realization of his place in the Three Kingdoms, but it's not a particularly cathartic one.
Confounding matters is Jiang Wen's Cao Cao, who's so blisteringly charismatic that he seems to be in a different film. Jiang blows Donnie Yen off the screen whenever they share it, and he gets all the best non-action moments. In fact, the film sometimes seems to be more about Cao Cao, as his actions carry the most weight. Ultimately, the biggest lesson in The Lost Bladesman was learned back in The Dark Knight: that Guan Yu is the hero that China deserves, but not the one that they need. Itís Cao Cao who'll get his hands dirty and take all the blame to help China, while Guan Yu can maintain his brilliant but perhaps ineffectual status as the righteous hero. Everyone will respect and adore Guan Yu, but in the end he cannot effect the change that China needs. Only Cao Cao can.
For a movie about Guan Yu, thatís kind a deflating lesson, isn't it? Well, if hot-blooded emotions aren't in the offing, at least you have Donnie Yen's action. Unfortunately, while the action is entertaining, itís still a notch below Yen's usual energetic choreography. Perhaps in keeping with the film's serious tone, action choreographer Yen tones down his over-the-top action, only amping things occasionally. Even more memorable, however, is what isnít seen. One action sequence plays out behind closed doors; the doors swing shut as Guan Yu goes to work, and when the doors yawn open, everyone is lying around slaughtered while Guan Yu stands victorious. It's pretty cool in concept, but this is a Donnie Yen movie. We want to see him kick ass, not triumph in battle elliptically.
If it isnít already apparent, The Lost Bladesman isn't a rip-roaring Three Kingdoms actioner Ė it's an epic melodrama with deeper-than-usual ideas. Alan Mak and Felix Chong's script is quite ambitious, but the writer-director pair can't get the drama from the page to the screen. The filmís emotions and arching storyline are buried in revelatory dialogue and cerebral turnabouts, and Alan Mak and Felix Chong donít have the chops to present their ideas visually. Worse, Donnie Yen is hardly recognizable here. Yen needs movies where he can cut loose and get angry, not films where he buries his emotions so deeply that they can only be explained by a co-star. Thatís not Yenís bag, and itís really not his audienceís either. For Alan Mak, Felix Chong and Donnie Yen, The Lost Bladesman is a noble but lacking attempt at something greater than theyíre perhaps capable of. At least right now. (Kozo, 2011)