Any doubt that the Chinese invented noodles is utterly erased in Donnie Yen‘s martial arts actioner, “Sakra.” He takes this sword-and-sorcery saga straight into Spaghetti Eastern — or Ramen Noodles Western, if you prefer — territory from the first bit of horseplay and earliest twangs of Italian Westerns of the ’60s guitar in the score.
It’s an often-over-the-top action romp, full of epic brawls and flawless, fluid wirework stunts (Yen’s an old hand at playing flying martial artists), where magic plays a hand and many die, but noble deaths and big death scenes almost always point to sorcerers tampering with “Is she/he really gone?”
And it’s quite a bit of fun, when it’s on the move and fists are flying. In between? A bit of a drag, with a pointless (Franchise building?) epiloguethat tends to muddy up what came before.
At the beginning of the Song Dynasty, a babe is found, literally “wrapped in swadling clothes,” left at the door of a childless couple. Young Qiao Fung grows up gifted, strong and righteous. He joins the Beggar’s Gang at an early age.
We meet him as an adult (Yen, of “Rogue One,” “John Wick 4,” etc.) lecturing a Shaolin monk who is transporting “a gift,” perhaps a sacrifice, in a covered cage. The brash stranger is told to mind his own business by the cruel monk.
“In the land of the Great Song, anyone who disregards morality is my business!” Xiao declares. And it’s on like Song…Dynasty. Minions and the monk, who can fling fire out of his fingers, must be foiled. Martial arts blows must be labeled as they’re delivered.
“Dragon Claw Hand!” “Dog Beating Staff!” “Eighteen Subduing Dragon Palms!” Later comes my favorite of all.
“The Proud Dragon Repents!”
Xiao Fung turns out to be the leader of the Beggar’s Gang. The prisoner turns out to be a pretty young lady Azhu (Chen Yuqi) whom Xiao Fung instantly devotes his life to defending.
That’s fateful, because when he returns to the gang to seek medical help for her, the vast bureaucracy of The Beggar’s Gang has deemed him a “traitor” and a “foreigner,” accused of the murder of the late husband or Mrs. Ma (Grace Wong Kwan Hing), who has a letter from her husband that lays the blame for his future death at Xiao Fung. So…he MUST be guilty!
Chinese justice, nothing like it.
The rest of the movie involves brawls and intrigues, magical martial arts, a little horseplay and — through most of the middle acts — a helluva lot of talking about what’s happened, what’s going to happen and the need for the Heroes at Heroes Gathering Manor (catchy) to deal with the rogue warrior of the Central Plains.
This is a film of scale and scope, with a sea of extras confronting our hero on foot and an army of allies catching wine bottles he samples and tosses back — at full gallop — for all to share.
Fight choreographers Hua Tan and Kang Yu cook up some dazzling martial arts ballets as no roadhouse, manor house or city street on the Central Plains is safe from their precisely-planned mayhem.
Yen may still be doing a lot of his own stunts, with the once-and-future stunt-man/Ip Man having credits that pre-date Jet Li’s “Hero” ands his own turns as “Iron Monkey.” If that’s really him dashing effortlessly, poetically across the rooftops of one town Xiao Fung tears up I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s one of the most graceful pieces of wirework I’ve ever seen in a martial arts movie.
Yes, the story’s a goof, a nonsensical mash-up that gives his character an excuse to bowl over legions of hired swordsmen and soldiers, monks and wizarding world warriors. But Yen is terrific, a Smiler with the Knife anti-hero who has the charisma Jet Li lacked and a cool bravado that never suited everyman martial arts comic Jackie Chan.
If he sticks around John Wick-world for a while, or returns to a time “Long ago in a galaxy far away” for an encore, or just keeps doing what he does in the noodle countries of the Exotic East, we’ll all be the richer for it.
Rating: R, bloody violence
Cast: Donnie Ye, Chen Yuqi, Eddie Chueng, Grace Wong Kwan Hing, Yuan Xiangren
Credits: Directed by Donnie Yen, scripted Ha Ben and Chen Li, based on the novel by Louis Cha. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 2:10