Dynasty Warriors (2021) [REVIEW] | Wuxia Warriors Of The Three Kingdoms

One last review to end this year’s Musou May (and yes i want to make this a regular column) proper, and it couldn’t be anything else than the Dynasty Warriors live-action film that came out last year in Chinese territories and has landed on Netflix pretty much everywhere. In 2021.

I genuinely did not knew it arrived last summer, and somehow Netflix forgot to tell me they even had it, shocking given my cronology, and due to me genuinely looking forward more to the movie than to mainline Dynasty Warriors games, as i’ve lamented before.

Though it’s one that both leaves you with a lot and very little to talk about, at least in terms of plot, since the series it’s one of the many adaptations of the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms novel, and despite their over the top nature, the games stayed fairly loyal to the source material in terms of characters and events, heck, even on stuff like the sparing supernatural-magic elements.

In this case we have the movie preface that basically in this world exist people able to channel-capture the force of fallen foes to empower themselves, as an excuse for having the characters being able to produce shockwaves and special power attacks like that… which is iffy, as yes, we’re recognizing this right away instead of ignoring it in the context of the historical and political drama, so it has an explanation built in, BUT on the other hand feels kinda cowardly, like, there’s plenty over the top stuff here that isn’t explained by that, and the movie tries to stylistically feel like the videogames, so you still kinda wanna ask what’s the point of that “self-excuse” in advance.

But then again, the movie goes an extra step in terms of “videogamery”, with an ethereal place (called the Castle Of Swords) where a mystical woman hands the sworn brothers trio (and had handed to other people) legendary weapons that become stronger the more enemies they kill/the more blood they bathe in.

mind you, this “ sword castle armory” place is new stuff that was NEVER in the games, but it kinda fits what they’re trying to do… and that leads to one of the main problems of the movie overall, but before we go any further let’s talk story and shit.

Really, the plot it’s pretty much what’d you expect from a Three Kingdoms adaptation-retelling, as it starts by narrating how the late Han dynasty was in disarray thanks to political corruption, giving way to rebel groups like the Yellow Turbans, we see the tyrant Dong Zhuo occupy the court and control the emperor by force, leading a coalition of warlords band together to stop him and his prized general Lu Bu, hopefully restoring the Han by doing so, with the combo of the battle of Hulao Pass and the attempted assault on the capital of Louyang serving as the climax.

Then it skips a few years after with a recap on what happened…. so yep, it’s a bit anticlimactic, since we don’t have even have closure on the whole Dong Zhuo story (he gets eventually betrayed and killed by his general Lu Bu), not even as a passing mention, so you feel like you’ve seen an overly long set up for a sequel, especially as the movie ends by saying “the story of the Three Kingdoms here commences”.

Which isn’t wrong, but leaves one with a slightly bitter tast, even more since there seems to be (nor to even have been, at least to my knowledge) plans for more sequels, yeah, one feels that more could have been done.

Obviosly, given how extensive the novel is, any attempt at a complete, loyal film adaptation is doomed to fail, so – as often is the case – they had to draw the line somewhere and decide what part of the story to tell, in this case is the introductory stuff and the anti-Dong Zhuo coalition “arc”, and the movie its still 2 hours long. And it’s so as it expects you know already the story and events from the novel and-or its dozens of adaptions, so the Peach Orchard Oath is mentioned in exposition.

What is the Peach Orchard Oath? You won’t really know by watching this, as it assumes you know who’s who, what’s what, the setup, so this is so NO the movie you should watch if you have zero familiarity with the subject matter.

You’ll be mostly lost and context-less for a lot of stuff.

Which leads us to the point i hinted at before, as in this is a double adaptation, not only of Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, but of the most notable videogames series based on said novel, Dynasty Warriors… so actually, this is a triple adaptation, since it’s a live action-from-videogame one.

Given the main opus the games series and the novel bases themselves (as in, a fictionalized account of a period of chinese history), this wasn’t the stupidest or absurdest idea, since after all we had a fuckton of movies already based on the same era of chinese history and the novel over time, so Dynasty Warriors makes the transiction to live-action painlessly. Kinda.

The movie isn’t broken but it’s definitely plagued by this structural, conceptual double compromise, as it has to both try and work as a historical dramaa, and on other appeal to fans of the series, by leaning hard into full on wuxia battles where people walk on walls, summon thunder, can freeze time while they sent dozens and dozens of soldier flying by just swinging their halberd into the ground, glide-run on water. Which was always gonna lead to a flippant tone, and frustration, as the plot feel inconsistently strung along by either one of the two “inside wolves”, not helped by how the presentation of the plot itself lacks cohesion for the very same reasons.

Also, it’s kinda funny to see this movie being way more lax than the games in terms of taking liberties with the source material, like the aforementioned “Castle of Swords”, or the Yellow Turbans soldier that here are resurrected as rabid zombie units that attack en masse Dong Zhuo riding on its horse dragging them around.

Which is definitely… new i guess. O_o

On top of that, one can also notice that they tried a bit too much to make the cinematography overly clean-polished for the sake of feeling like a cinema high fidelity translation of the videogame aesthetics. And it’s actually shockingly bloodless, even if there’s impalement and multiple decapitions, it’s mostly plasma free digital violence, which is exactly like the games, and leads to some really cheesy stuff, like how Hua Xiong ALWAYS makes the heads fly and plop directly into the rebel base situated two literal mountains away. XD

Another point of contention is the casting. As i’ve heard the actors are solid but it’s clear most of them were chosen because they’re popular actors in mainland China, as they mostly don’t quite fit the characters in terms of physique and-or look, while retaining the getups they have from the games… which it’s another problem, as some costumes do look kinda goofy in live-action, like Zhang Fei especially, he looks way cartoonish.

Sure, these characters have been portrayed in many ways over the course of thousand of films based on the classic chinese novel, but the casting choices here often have the actors mismatched as the characters they’re playing, with the characters themselves understandibly having different characterizations from their Dynasty Warriors counterparts, maybe too “anime” for a live-action setting… but then the movie retains most of the armor designs and the weapons from the game.

Though, i did like this Lu Bu, it’s not the shouty boasting monster of the game, but still cool and menacing powerhouse of few words and lots of prowess. Disappointed there’s no Xiahou Dun nor Zhuge Liang, and i hope you didn’t care much about Sun Jian’s side of the story, because he’s barely in the movie and neither he or his son are never at the forefront of the narration.

As a last nitpick, i wish they used more music from the games than they eventually did.

I think overall it’s alright. In terms of adaptation of the videogame series it’s actually pretty faithful, as it goes along and with the idea of these characters being absolute monsters able to level mountains by swinging around mystical halberds, it gets the series “ 1 vs 1000” feel right, and while there aren’t that many campal battles featured, those and the other action scenes are quite fun to watch, and the videogamey stuff (which often is tied to some narrative liberties) isn’t that distracting because most of the stuff falls in line with what you could see in a lot of wuxia films.

It’s a bit on the cheesy side, but not necessarily in a bad way, as it puts big emphasis on the “magical mystical bullshit” that’s… actually pretty entertaining, i guess also because faithful adaptations of the Three Kingdoms novel had been done to death, they figured it was better and just more fun for audiences (especially chinese ones) to take liberties here and there for entertaiment’s sake, and the productions values are big enough to back up the mystical battles and their spectactle.

The problem – as said before – is that the movie (almost by design or conceptual compromises) to either being a historical drama retelling of selected Three Kingdoms event or a full on wuxia style adaption of the very same story/subject, with over the top action that in turns feels more like the Dynasty Warriors videogames, so this compromise unsurprisingly doesn’t fully satisfies anyone. Who would have thought?

Even so, it’s the movie it was advertised in the trailer, and i was okay with that, but it could have been a bit better if the narrative felt more like complete in itself, instead of feeling like a cliffnotes recaps of some events but not others, not incredibly well directed by Roy Chow, without a proper resolution but a kinda disappointing, anticlimactic finale that indeed makes you feel like you’ve seen a prologue for the actual Dynasty Warriors movie. One that might or might not ever come out.

Also, i’m gonna have to make it extra clear that this ISN’T the movie to watch if you never played neither the Dynasty Warriors series, red the Three Kingdoms novel, or haven’t learned the basic gist of it indirectly through one of the many adaptations of the novel or media products based on that historic period. Because it’s nearly incomprensible that way, though i’m not giving the movie much flak for that, as it was made for the chinese market first, so it makes sense to assume chinese audiences would be quite familiar with one of the four classics of chinese literature (strange, innit?), one that has been adapted zillions of times, by both chinese territories and Japan.

It’s kinda just average, in-the-middle, which fits for some of the latter mainline, non-crossover Warriors games… actually, a bit better, considering the Dynasty Warriors mainline releases of late. Could have been far worse, this is fine enough.

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