- - Thursday, August 30, 2012

Swords aren’t the only things sent sailing through the air in “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.”

People, arrows, horses, logs and even an entire inn are launched into the sky in director Tsui Hark’s Imax-sized 3-D kung-fu bonanza.

Which just goes to show how easy it is to fly in Mr. Tsui’s delightfully goofy ancient fantasy world. Gravity is less of a law and more of a minor inconvenience for the movie’s multiple martial-arts masters, all of whom display a soaring gymnastic bounciness that would put the most decorated Olympic jumper to shame.

Indeed, as often as not, the movie’s characters barely even need to bother with flexing their legs to leap. A determined facial expression and a menacing, weapons-drawn pose are all that’s necessary to be swept off the ground — as if hurled into motion by some external force playing with the actors as if they were life-sized action figures.

“The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” is intermittently overwhelming, exhausting and amusing. The viewing experience feels something like watching a show a boy might put on with his toys. It’s playful, outrageous, colorful, violent, exuberant and, from time to time, incomprehensible. The story, set in a mystical ancient China, involves an inn that serves human flesh, a powerful government security force made exclusively of eunuchs, a powerful warrior believed by most to be a legend (Jet Li, who gets first billing but is absent for long stretches) and a complex switcheroo with a royal double.

The acrobatic chaos is all orchestrated by Mr. Tsui, a longtime Hong Kong action filmmaker who dabbled briefly in low-budget American movies during the late 1990s but is known mostly as one of the chief purveyors of wire-fu — an expressive depiction of martial-arts fighting in which the combatants are whisked along on invisible wires, unbound by conventional physical laws.

Mr. Tsui has never been one for subtlety, but the action scenes in “Dragon Gate” are gleefully ridiculous even by his expansive standards. Forget the grim, quasi-realistic action set pieces of “The Matrix” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “Dragon Gate” plays more like a Looney Tunes riff on those films — cartoonishly exaggerated and often downright silly.

Mr. Tsui began his filmmaking career in the days when Hong Kong action films were still relatively low-budget affairs. This time, Mr. Tsui’s toy box includes both 3-D and an awful lot of expensive computer-generated effects. But, they detract far more than they add. The use of 3-D means a lot of objects hurtle wildly toward the audience, and the CG work is television quality at best.

Worse still, Mr. Tsui packs his action scenes with poorly animated objects and sets that serve only to undermine the physical spectacle. “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” may specialize in sending stuff into the air, but it would have been better if it had stayed grounded in practical physical effects.

★★★

TITLE: “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Tsui Hark

RATING: R for cartoonishly bloody action

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS