“Legends are Born in Battle”
Directed by Nick Powell
Starring Hayden Christensen, Nicolas Cage, Liu Yifei, Ji Ke Jun Yi, Andy On
During the Crusades – doesn’t really matter which ones – Jacob (Christensen) and his mentor/retainer Gallian (Cage) kill some Saracens; probably, in the final analysis, way too many. Gallian is already thinking of getting out, and three years after a particularly bloody siege we find Jacob following Gallian’s dream to head east, because there’s something that you probably didn’t pick up on from that poster.
That’s right; we’re in non-specifically Imperial China, or… maybe not quite Imperial? Post-Imperial northern China at the time of the Southern Song Dynasty? I’m not sure; China is even less my bag than the Crusades. There’s a king, apparently, who is growing old and has thus decided to pass the throne to his younger son Lian (Yifei), a scholar, over the head of the eldest, Shing (On), a great warrior, anticipating no fall out from this whatsoever. Lian and his sister Mei (Jun), assigned as her brother’s protector, but really only slightly more competent, fall in with Jacob, who is mighty despite being perpetually smashed from chewing raw opium (because China, right.) They rescue a peasant and try to enlist Gallian – now known as bandit chief the White Ghost – to help reach the generals who can ratify Lian, but must fight a final battle against Shing’s Black Guards before Jacob can rally the honour of the old king’s warriors in a Gladiator style doomed duel with Shing.
What’s wrong with it?
Opium only became a thing in China in the 15th Century, and really took off in the 17th and 18th centuries under encouragement – sometimes military – from the British. It’s use as Jacob’s drug of choice is lazy shorthand for Chinese vice. This is a Chinese co-production, so I don’t know if it’s racist exactly, but it’s certainly dubious given its history.
They rescue this peasant girl. She eats funny and once raises a few social issues.
This is one of a vanishingly small number of films which can be viewed with a lingering feeling that there isn’t enough Nicholas Cage in it.
Hayden Christensen is doing a weird accent. It’s vaguely British, but utterly unidentifiable – possibly West Country? – and ultimately turns out to be an authentic Nicholas Cage West Country accent.
Despite being charged with her brother’s protection, Mei turns out to have zero defensive capabilities beyond giving money to dangerous men with swords.
Remember how much it hurt watching Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones being all ‘wah-wah, I murdered women and children, LOVE ME!’? Well, this is much the same, just with slightly less direct guilt.
What’s right with it?
Apparently all that Sith training paid off, because Christensen does not suck with a sword. In particular, there’s a lot of room for a fight with an actor/martial artist like On to showcase the paucity of a screen fighter’s skills, but he holds up pretty well.
Cage is in one of his deep immersion moods, just burying himself in the part of the drunken, one-eyed Gallian. He’s clearly way less into playing the character back in his respectable Crusading days.
How bad is it really?
It’s not really bad, but damn it feels weird. It’s such an odd thing in this age of international cinema to see a film with a white protagonist sort of shoehorned into a basically Asian story. Kind of like Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin (or John Saxon in Enter the Dragon.)
Best bit (if such there is)?
Jacob agrees to train Lian. He flashes back to Gallian training him by standing at the side of his archery target so that if he misses he would hit Gallian. In the flashback, Jacob puts an arrow in the target. In the present, Lian nearly skewers Jacob.
What’s up with…?
- Nicholas Cage? I know, I know; easy joke, but really. There are entire sitcom episodes devoted to this question.
- Opium as the scourge of 12th century China? Seriously, portraying opium as this terrible ice from China is both an appalling stereotype and derived from Britain’s enforced import of opium into China.
Production values – Not too shabby. There are some pretty rock bottom explosion effects in the later fights, but the combat is good. 7
Dialogue and performances – I just… The accents, man. The accents. The script is no better or worse than a hundred others, but the acting never gets past those accents. It’s entirely possible that the Chinese cast would be much better in their native languages, but none of them really pop past whatever the hell is going on with Cage and Christensen. 11
Plot and execution – The plot is straightforward, but the pacing is a bit odd, with a long, slow bit right where the action ought to be gearing up to the climax. 11
Randomness – Nicholas Cage is king of the bandits. Opium! 8
Waste of potential – Three quid wisely spent. (That’s the DVD, not the budget.) 4