A throwback martial arts fantasy like “Code of the Assassins” can’t help but summon up what one remembers of Joseph Campbell’s seminal book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” or Vladimir Propp’s “The Morphology of the Folk Tale.”
There really are only about half a dozen plots in all of fiction. And the “hero” really does have “a thousand faces,” masked or unmasked, in superhero tights, the cloak of a Jedi or an ancient warrior from Asia, the Middle East or anywhere else.
“Code of the Assassins,” released as “Song of the Assassins” in China, harks back to Asia’s version of the sort of talky, fan-friendly quests that one can see in any comic book movie from Marvel or DC. It’s got the same archetypes — fighters with specialized, supernatural skills, treacherous villains, damsels and dragon ladies — magical talismans and a wondrous object coveted by all, in this case, an ornate, sliding and folding copper map to “all of the forgotten treasures” in this version of mythic China.
It stuffs the screen with characters, exposition and conflicting motivations. And it damned near talks itself to death in the process. But all that really matters are that the fights are cool and that various warriors, assassins, princes, generals and judges “stick the superhero landing.”
Daniel Lee, director of “Three Kingdoms” and “White Vengeance,” tells a tale of a time when “assassins were used to solve problems.” Can’t release a movie that would scare the People’s Republicans who run China by giving the proles ideas, can we?
Qi Junyuan, aka “Blue Asura” (Shaofeng Feng of “1921” and “White Vengeance”) is a one-armed member of the Ghost Valley assassins guild, murderous mercenaries hired to solve geo-political and economic problems by the assorted kingdoms of ancient China. He wears a gilded mask and black cloak when on the job for South Pagoda or East Mulberry or whatever royal line bids for his services.
And that missing arm has been replaced by ancient Chinese bionic tech. He’s got a steampunk arm — the Arm of Asura — that spring loads daggers or swords into that hand and fires darts or grappling hooks that help him fly from pagoda to pagoda.
He has an overlord, Golden Mask, and a mentor, Grim Ghost.
“Let go of the hatred and prevail in righteousness, Grim Ghost/Obi Wan counsels.
And he’s got a grudge. That map he’s been summoned to steal from a general (Jun Hu) who has been sent take it from its latest owner was made by our hero’s father. Making it got his entire clan slaughtered, save for Qi Junyuan.
On this quest, the map will change hands, assorted cities and factions will be visited. He’ll clash with generals and princes, and meet a power behind the scenes, Lady Hua (Qing Xu) and a banjo-playing beauty (Gina Chen Jin) who has her own agenda.
And he’ll do a hell of a lot of talking and listening as everybody schemes and counter-schemes, battle is joined in courtyards, temples and the like and fighters fly by wire into duels that pause for slo-mo, wind-blown hair close-ups, legions of minions and their gadgets are deployed and that damned map becomes a clue to our hero’s past.
The CGI cities and digitally-assisted action beats are impressive, but the performances have a subtlety that plays as flat in this whirling, slicing and stabbing “epic.” A White Judge and a Black Judge are hurled into action in some memorable bits of self-sacrifice or extra special special effects. The Black Judge is mainly a swirling, empty cloak that all but swallows his foes when he’s in that form.
“Code of the Assassins” sweeps into action and peters out in a third act that starkly staggers into dull disappointment, sadly another thing this Hi-Yah! (its distributor’s chosen name) release shares with so many other “heros’ journeys,” so many of them with a DC or Marvel slapped onto the opening credits.
Rating: unrated, stabbings and slicings, bloody violence
Cast: Shaofeng Feng, Jun Hu, Qing Xu, Ray Lui, Jack Kao and
Gina Chen Jin
Credits: Directed by Daniel Lee, scripted by Yuan Tai Chi, Ravine Lang and Daniel Lee. A Well Go USA/Hi-Yah! release.
Running time: 1:58