The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
These are the opening words of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong and based on the events surrounding the turbulent Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history (as described in the authoritative historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms). It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and has been compared to the works of Shakespeare as far as cultural impact on China and East Asia. Also, similarly to Shakespeare, quite a bit of historical accuracy was sacrificed in the name of politics and DRRRRRAAAAAMMAAAAAAAAA (Hi, Richard III!).
Something that epic, with a total of 800,000 words and almost a thousand dramatically important characters (mostly historical ones at that), and centering on one of the most notable warring periods in Chinese history, it kinda makes sense that at some point someone would make a video game about it. But not just someone, and not just any video game.
Koei Co Ltd (now known as Koei Tecmo) had already found success in strategy and simulation games and had adapted Romance of the Three Kingdoms into a turn-based grand strategy wargame in 1985, creating its own very popular series. In 1997, their Omega Force division (created to help branch out from the same strategy games Koei was already making) released Dynasty Warriors, originally a one-on-one weapon-based fighting game like Soul Calibur before morphing into a hack-and-slash action series. Nowadays, the series has taken on aspects of its predecessor series, becoming a unique mix of historical fantasy roleplaying, strategic wargaming, and anime-style one-man battles against hordes of enemies before meeting a boss-level enemy, known as “Musou Mode” in the game.
It’s like if you took The Henriad, expanded it to encompass the entire Hundred Years War, then combined it with Streets of Rage and eventually added a game mode where England and France team up against Joan of Arc and her army of monsters… oh, wait, Koei Tecmo made that too. Clearly, they ascribed to the mantra “if it ain’t broke, put a new coat of paint on it”.
(By the way, Koei Tecmo really, really, really wants to make a Warriors game in the Star Wars universe, but the exclusivity deal with Electronic Arts is a big hindrance. So, in case you wanted another reason to hate EA, there you go.)
But enough about the game.
The film, from director/producer Roy Chow and writer/producer Christine To (both of whom worked on Jet Li’s Fearless), had a long road to the big screen. Announced in 2016, it was filmed in China and New Zealand in 2017, then originally scheduled to be released in 2019 before going quiet and eventually released this April in China and Hong Kong. Netflix has been shelling out big bucks for global distribution rights to Asian films, including a record-breaking eight-figure price for this one. So now the streaming distributor is bringing this to screens outside China. So, was it worth the delay and the Netflix payday?
The movie opens during the last days of the Han Dynasty. General Dong Zhuo (Lam Suet, Kung Fu Hustle) leads the army to end the Yellow Turban Rebellion once and for all. Zhang Jiao (Phillip Keung, SPL II), leader of the Yellow Turbans, proceeds to use his sorcery to turn his forces into bite-happy berserkers. By the way, Zhang being a sorcerer is directly from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is not simply an embellishment of the game or movie. Just preparing you for this. As this new threat nearly ends in victory for the Yellow Turbans, our three main characters arrive with an appropriately heroic guitar riff: Liu Bei (Tony Yang), Guan Yu (Han Geng), and Zhang Fei (Justin Cheung).
I will say this; the movie opens strong. It’s clear they wanted to give the audience a taste of the good stuff early, with Dong Zhuo dragging at least twenty bloodthirsty mooks hanging off of him at full gallop, and the Three Amigos wiping out dozens of foes with a single swipe of their weapons. After the Yellow Turbans are defeated, Dong Zhao proceeds to rebuff them after learning that the Three Amigos have no official ranks, immediately responding with a scoff that says “Dear Untouchable Trio, I hate your stinking guts. You make me vomit. You are the scum between my toes. Love, Dong Zhao”.
After the title and credits, it is revealed that Dong Zhao has taken the family of the last emperor hostage, and after doing a few more bad guy things, has effectively taken over the Han Empire. As blocks of expository text play alongside the credits over admittedly lovely shots of terrain and interiors, one of the film’s most glaring problems emerges: there is simply too much story.
This is an epic tale comparable that takes place over decades. The game handles this through judicious use of cutscenes and mainly focusing on the battles, but even then they are adapting the near entirety of the book into the game. But that’s a game designed to be played over multiple hours, not a movie that has to be done in under two. So even only focusing on the first few chapters of the story (the Yellow Turban Rebellion is just a prologue now), a lot of it is relegated to either short bursts of on-screen text (which gets abandoned after the hour mark) or just… never addressed, meaning characters will pop in and out seemingly at random. Ironically, knowing parts of the story beforehand actually makes the discontinuity worse, as anyone unfamiliar with it will probably be able to get the gist without their brain going “wait, what about…” or “is that supposed to be…” like mine did. I suppose that is a gamble one takes when adapting a popular series, but it could have been handled better. For example, if the big “the child puppet emperor is deposed of and replaced by another child puppet emperor” scene is rendered immediately pointless by a blurb of text, just pick one or the other.
We are also introduced to our final major character, the warlord Cao Cao (Wang Kai), who hates the venal nature of the court and how easily they capitulated to Dong Zhao, and later tries to assassinate him. It’s not really a spoiler to say he fails, and the movie proceeds to establish him as the most interesting character in the movie, balancing between his ostensibly heroic position in this part of the story versus foreshadowing later events. It’s not subtle in the least, but then, Dynasty Warriors isn’t known for subtlety.
Following that, we come to another problem: the seemingly extraneous “chosen ones” subplot. While seeking out a rumored alliance against Dong Zhao, the Heroic Trio ends up in a forest that transforms into the mystical Sword Castle, home of legendary weapons that drink blood and get stronger the more enemies they slay. As you do.
The Master of the Sword Castle (Carina Lau, Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee trilogy) explains that the weapons wait for their masters, who are destined to become great warriors. This is what happened with Lu Bu (Louis Koo, Flash Point), Dong Zhao’s right-hand man and possibly the greatest fighter in the Empire, and Cao Cao as well, leading to flashbacks telling us what happened while they were just farting around apparently. After 20 minutes that reinforce Cao Cao as the one person with actual motivations, we come back and the Ambiguously Present Trio gets their shiny new toys and rushes off to join up with the campaign against Dong Zhao.
This is where that question from the opening battle pops up. This is here to justify using the iconic game weapons and attacks in the movie. Normally, I have no problem with that. I mean, it’s a neat little fan service gag. Except… in that opening fight, before we know anything about the Sword Castle, the Three Wuxiateers are already blasting people with fire and wind attacks! After this, the almost the only fight (besides a practice duel between Lu Bu and Cao Cao with just one notable display of power) where we see any of this great power is in the final battle against Lu Bu, and they look pretty much the same until they get their eleventh-hour powerup (the cool factor of which is a bit dampened by some iffy compositing). As far as I can find, the Sword Castle is completely film-exclusive. There was really no need for it and takes up screen time for what amounts to be more exposition.
We finally get to the second half of the film. The other warlords act like d*cks to the Triple Brosephs, Cao Cao stands up for them, they prove their skill and the warlords stop acting like (active) d*cks. This leads into Hulao Gate and the final fight against Lu Bu. The good guys win then prove to not all be good guys, Dong Zhao and Lu Bu survive, and we get a lot of sequel bait that probably won’t get paid off. Again, the movie’s got some impressive fight choreography and visual effects, with only the occasional iffy points. But by this point, I was exhausted.
Oh, did I forget to mention the spontaneous love story between Lu Bu and Diaochan (Coulee Nazha) at this point? I mean, it’s a pretty important aspect of the novel, since it sets up a big turn for Lu Bu, but since we had to have that damn Sword Castle in there, we only get him saving her from trying to drown herself to avoid an arranged marriage. Oh, and some sequel bait later. But hey, we got a nice shot of Lu Bu’s Epic Feathers of Badassery.
Dynasty Warriors isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but damn is it disappointing. It tries to adapt both the novel and the game, with more weight towards the former. This makes sense on paper (actually going where the story is), but it ends up severely shortchanging the narrative and emotional beats. The film gets bogged down in exposition and fails to engender any investment in the fights, which should be the big draw since they are the only aspect that justifies the title. Instead of a great Dynasty Warriors movie or even a decent Romance of the Three Kingdoms movie, we just end up with a lackluster mix of both.
Save some time, wait a while, and just look up the fight scenes on YouTube. If you really want a better attempt at this, track down John Woo’s Red Cliff, either in its two-part version or the full four-hour cut. It is set later in the story, during the real meat of the novel, and Woo does a better job balancing high-energy battle scenes with court drama and interpersonal conflict. Or hell, watch the Detective Dee films, where Carina Lau isn’t wasted in such a thankless role.
But if you do decide to watch this, stick with the Cantonese audio track (with subtitles if needed). The English dub is terrible. And I’m not one of those “subs over dubs” types; there are some good to great dubs, even on Netflix “originals”, that actually convey the tenor of the story and match the physical acting of the actors. This one does not. It sounds flat and perfunctory, with little in the way of voice direction or care, with only the occasional generic gravelly voice or nasally whining to differentiate between characters.
Header Image Source: Netflix/HMV Digital China Group Limited