Dynasty Warriors review: Netflix’s games adaptation has a split-identity problem

Netflix’s Dynasty Warriors motion picture — like the computer game series of the very same name on which it’s based — is a complex thing to evaluate, or to advise for seeing or preventing. On the one hand, it’s a completely appropriate martial-arts action movie, when director Roy Hin Yeung Chow concentrates on making it into one. The Dynasty Warriors video games are based upon an old traditional piece of Chinese literature, the unique 3 Kingdoms, often called Love of the 3 Kingdoms. Audiences who aren’t familiar with either that book or the video games might have a difficult time following the motion picture’s plot, which is frequently a headache tangle of doglegs, out-of-nowhere advancements, and essential occasions relegated to a couple of lines of discussion.

The movie has some terrific minutes, however it’s likewise irregular about them. Dynasty Warriors has a little bit of an id: Roy relatively can’t choose whether he wishes to make a historic duration drama that simply takes place to have some high-octane fighty bits, or a wu xia movie that includes long swathes of historic drama in between a fairly little number of battle scenes. Include the motion picture’s unpredictable method to the sequential circulation of the plot, and it’s a dish for some extremely dissentious viewpoints.

The motion picture ends with the expression “The story of the Three Kingdoms commences,” which’s an excellent encapsulation of the story’s scope. The 2 biggest disputes covered in the movie — the Yellow Turban disobedience and the siege of Hu Lao Gate — are, in the unique, the entrance to the book’s ultimate concentrate on the titular 3 kingdoms contending for control of China. Hu Lao in specific sets the phase for the rulers of those kingdoms (Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Jian) to increase to power in their own spheres.

A soldier in period Chinese costume wields two swords in Netflix’s Dynasty Warriors

Image: Netflix

That’s why these 2 fights are frequently the very first 2 playable phases of a Dynasty Warriors video game too: They’re efficiently the beginning, the incentive of the story. Other movie adjustments of 3 Kingdoms have actually likewise taken this method: John Woo’s two-part Red Cliff is a set of movies committed completely to one fight from the unique, albeit a traditionally vital fight that uses up various chapters, and remains in lots of methods the climax of 3 Kingdoms.

Dynasty Warriors certainly has a great deal of the important things typical to the wu xia category that make it pleasurable. Lavish outside shots flaunting extraordinary countryside vistas (from New Zealand, in this case) are a martial-arts movie staple, and there are lots of those here, utilized to great impact in much of the smaller sized outside scenes. As is frequently the case, the broad vistas are utilized to offer a sense of grandness and scale to the story, frequently by contrast with the characters’ smallness in any provided shot.

The battle scenes are kinetic. Owing to the high-impact martial-arts action gameplay of the real video games, battle scenes including the motion picture’s main characters integrate common wire-work battle with sweeps of scarlet flame in the course of a sword, or a halberd that craters the ground on effect, while bleeding white lightning into the surrounding location. These battles are rubbish, specifically the last, weather fight, where Liu Bei and his bros deal with Lu Bu. However they’re nonsense in the very best possible method. They’re enjoyable the same method the actual Dynasty Warriors games are pleasurable: over-the-top and stylish, with dramatic visual flair. There just aren’t very many of those fights in the film, which is confusing, given the genre.

The music is the very same: A handful of songs from the actual games make their method into the score, typically during fight scenes, and Roy skillfully employs the Dynasty Warriors series’ usual mix of traditional Chinese melodies with hard-rock guitar. At the film’s climax, the series’ main theme plays in all its glory behind the hyperkinetic wire-fu, and it’s a perfect fit.

For fans and readers of the real novel, there are plenty of “Hey, I remember that!” moments in the plot as well. Guan Yu riding off to kill an enemy general before his wine gets cold, Cao Cao claiming himself and Liu Bei are the only heroes in the land over tea in a thunderstorm, Liu Bei’s ouster as a provincial governor… these are all narrative beats from Three Kingdoms that are typically too specific and incidental to make it into an actual Dynasty Warriors game. At the same time, though, the story takes an equal number of liberties with the novel, sending familiar elements or events in a sharply different direction.

A bearded warrior in gilt armor on an armored horse charges into battle in Dynasty Warriors

Photo: Netflix

In a way, this characterizes the film’s crisis of identity. Is it adapting the video games, or the book? Is it a war story like the games, or a character portrait of the differences between Cao Cao and Liu Bei, as the book often is? By attempting to do both, Roy only partially succeeds in each case. He focuses a tremendous amount of time in the movie on very small events in the story, like Cao Cao’s assassination attempt on Dong Zhuo and the resulting fallout, but then reduces equally critical parts of the story to “and then this happened” dialogue a scene later.

Poor Sun Jian, a major player in Three Kingdoms, gets two screen appearances and then is relegated to being mentioned by other people for the final hour of the movie. Diao Chan, the central figure in the downfall of the film’s main antagonist, Lu Bu, literally just appears while attempting to drown herself in some random mountain lake half an hour before the end of the film.

This may just be the curse of adapting a work with such an immense cast. There’s a reason Red Cliff is two separate full-length features. Dynasty Warriors’ oddly abrupt ending is likely a result of that same curse: When your story is actually the brief prologue to the plot of a 1200-page novel, how do you end it in a narratively satisfying way without foreclosing the novel’s story? Roy’s choices don’t entirely work, but it’s hard to imagine a solution that would.

Adapting the games gives Roy license to go a little harder on the story’s fantasy and supernatural elements, but the film takes that liberty in a strange direction. One of its narrative conceits is a set of magical weapons found in a mystical “Sword Castle,” and given to warriors of great worth so they may change history. The powers of these weapons — which Liu Bei and his brothers, Cao Cao, and Lu Bu all have — are part of the narrative “explanation” for why scenes like the final conflict with Lu Bu would be at home in a Dragonball Z episode.

It’s a reasonable gimmick, and an excuse to give the characters their signature weapons from the Dynasty Warriors games as props, but it also feels deeply unnecessary. Few martial-arts film fans would bat an eye at Guan Yu’s guandao sweeping fire across the battlefield, even without a fancy sword backstory. In fact, he does this very thing in the film even before receiving his magical destiny weapon. Part of the fun of the actual Dynasty Warriors games is that the playable generals are all basically one-person mass-murder engines, scything through faceless mooks like so much wheat. Tacking on a magical castle with a mystical caretaker accessed through a foggy haunted forest ends up feeling really extraneous.

Viewers who have never read Three Kingdoms or played a Dynasty Warriors title can probably still enjoy the film, if they can adjust to the plot’s weird jumps through time and events, and just focus on the drama and visuals. Devoid of any context, it’s still a reasonable martial-arts movie with some excessive style in its big fight scenes.

For folks who know the source material, though, it’s more of a gamble. The little references and inclusions are a plus, like seeing playable characters from the games wearing their actual in-game weapons and armor. But it’s equally likely that knowledgeable fans might feel deep frustration at how scattershot the film is about what Roy and his team choose to include or adapt.

It’s worth wondering whether this adaptation will continue in the future. There’s certainly a lot more story to tackle, even simply mining the video games rather than the full Three Kingdoms unique. But any future Dynasty Warrior movies could benefit immensely from the creators committing more specifically either to making a historical epic or to making an over-the-top action movie. As a saying oft-quoted in 3 Kingdoms observes: “The hunter who chases two hares catches neither.”

Dynasty Warriors is now streaming on Netflix.

An armored warrior in an elaborate feathered helmet leaps through the air in Netflix’s Dynasty Warriors

Image: Netflix

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.