Taking of Tiger Mountain, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/26/20 12:47:17

"Big, entertaining, somewhat hollow."
3 stars (Just Average)

"The Taking of Tiger Mountain" was one of the first films in China's recent wave of military action blockbusters, and it's got most of the issues of the ones that have followed, primarily that it has exactly the amount of nuance one would expect of a big-budget movie whose makers know that it must pass through a fairly strict censor board. This one's at least got Tsui Hark at the helm, and he's probably got more experience making this sort of effects-laden movie than anybody else in China, and even more making entertaining action/adventure.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1946, in Northeastern China, a year after the defeat of Japan, a time when the People's Liberation Army, Nationalist forces, and warlord bandits. The PLA unit attempting to secure the area is seriously under-supplied, although Captain Shoa Jianbo (Kenny Lin Genxin), known as "203", is being sent reinforcements - scout Yang Zirong (Zhang Hanyu) and nurse Bai Ru (Tong Liya) to join a team including aide-de-camp Gao Bo (Chen Xiao) and locals Tank (Zha Ka) and Li Yongqi (Guo Hong-Qing). The greatest local threat appears to be Lord Hawk (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), who has holed up in an abandoned Japanese fort and may have a line on the location of an arsenal the retreating army left behind.

Tsui has spent the 2010s finally able to make the big, effects-laden movies he never had the resources for in the early, Hong Kong-based phases of his career, and in the early going he occasionally seems to be using bullet-time to stop and linger, like this is exactly what he storyboarded and wants to take a snapshot. He's similarly self-indulgent with 3D, absolutely loving to throw things directly at the audience or use slow-motion to let things hang in mid-air. For all the flashy moments, Tsui uses his budget like the old pro that he is, letting the audience learn their way around the various main settings, creating depth and keeping the movie from looking too busy, plus threading the needle between the PLA being underdogs and being desperate.

In threading that needle, though, he and his co-writers don't necessarily give a decent ensemble cast a whole lot to work with. They're mostly dutiful soldiers and desperate villagers, and while it's easy enough to like 203, Gao, and Bai, they're well-played stock characters, as is the initially-uncommunicative kid that falls in with them. The fun mostly comes from Zhang Hanyu's scout/undercover operative, who is just gruff and unpolished enough to come across as a possibly-untrustworthy rogue even though nothing in the story necessarily suggests why 203 and his unit would regard him with suspicion, at least to an outsider, though Du Yi-Heng's duplicitous henchman and Tony Leung Ka-Fai's mugging warlord. They may be caricatures, but evil caricatures can be more entertaining than simple do-gooders.

It's an issue that Tsui has to overcome as the last act explodes into action; there's never any particular doubt in the outcome, especially with the heroic sacrifices and everything else happening right on schedule. It's countered mainly by the film shifting gears, becoming less a war movie than a Saturday-serial sort of action/adventure, built around an absolutely ridiculous ski jump that leads into action that is as entertainingly staged as it is thoroughly one-sided. There may never be any real doubt about the outcome, but the scale is big, the staging solid, and all the little bits that make up the larger sequence are played with enthusiasm but not sadism. It's the sort of action that's easy to get caught up in, grinning at the sheer craft, even if there is not a lot of suspense to it.

There's also a frame on it with a man in the present stopping to meet friends in New York on the way to a lucrative job in Silicon Valley before footage of a Peking Opera show inspired by the same story leads him to return home and pay tribute to said heroes, just in case the appropriate message wasn't received. Tsui winks at that in the most over-the-top way possible in the end credits, but a last-minute acknowledgment of this sort of acknowledgment and myth-making doesn't make the two hours that came before more than slick and professional.

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