Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Duel to the Death


   If there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's a good ninja movie. And while neither of the leads in this movie is a ninja himself, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to go around in Duel to the Death. Easily harkening back to the early days of the Shaw Brothers, this HK actioner delivers wholesale, straight-faced, chop socky action by the pound- and it is glorious. The story is simple and straightforward (mostly) which is a relief. I enjoy these movies more when I can follow them- but let's be honest here, you didn't come for the story (which isn't bad). No, you came for the legions of motherfreakin' ninjas. Am I right or am I right?

   Duel to the Death was made in a historical sweet spot, as one of the last SB-esque Hong Kong actioners, it has the old school shop-socky flavor that would quickly be lost to the 'grand historical epic' like Hero or Red Cliff. Duel to the Death also revolves around a... well... duel to the death between a swordsman from Japan and one from China- each representing their own respective country. The filmmakers exploit every ounce of the Japanese influence they can- mainly by flooding the screen with motherfreakin' ninjas whenever possible. There are times I felt like I was watching a Lone Wolf and Cub flick, and that is never a bad thing.

   Ninjas popping out of the sand, ninjas flying through the trees, ninjas exploding, ninjas kidnapping people, ninjas throwing nets, ninjas chopping off limbs, ninjas doing that running thing that they do, and even ninja titties. Ninja motherfreakin' titties. Yessir, outside of Cannon's bizarre trilogy of unrelated ninja movies, this is one of the craziest I've seen. It's a movie that doesn't dare ground itself in a little thing I like to call reality. If you're the type of person who questions why a talking severed head that's been impaled on a tree branch suddenly explodes after it says its last words- this movie probably isn't for you.

   Gravity is a convenience in this flick, easily shirked aside whenever the set pieces call for some literal high-flying action. The two duelists must fight corruption from both sides and a dangerous conspiracy that threatens the honor and integrity of two countries. And, of course, they also have to fights dozens and dozens of ninjas. Moreover, make no mistake, the ninjas in this movie aren't just skilled assassins. They're the kind of ninjas that do things that are impossible on every level. Flying through the air, disappearing entirely, combining their bodies to form one giant super-ninja, and- yeah. You get the point. You're either someone who thinks this sounds stupid, or someone who's saying "Holy crap, I need to see this now." Personally, I'm the latter.

   The acting from the two leads is surprisingly good, and this melodramatic tale makes sure they have as much to say as they do to fight, but there is literally never a dull moment in this flick. From stunning sets to bizarre visuals, excellent cinematography and endlessly inventive action choreography, Duel to the Death is an absolute delight. It's as weird and crazy as it is nonstop fun. Its straight-faced and serious nature surprisingly doesn't clash with its weirder elements, but instead the final product feels like a fantastical retelling of a real event. I don't know if any of the stuff in this movie ever happened, but often the movie unfolds with the conviction of a historical drama... and then some motherfreakin' ninjas show up. Pass the popcorn!

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