Thanks to the publicity efforts of such personalities as Quentin Tarantino, Hong Kong cinema has become, for lack of a better word, legendary. With exaggerated, carefully choreographed action sequences, Hong Kong filmmakers have had an indelible influence on action films all over the world. The multi-talented director/actor/producer/writer/composer Frankie Chan was quite active in Hong Kong cinema in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but had only one film in 2000 and nothing since then. Nothing, that is, until producer Jackie Chan brought him back into the director's chair for 2011's 'Legendary Amazons.'
Based on the same source as 1972's 'The 14 Amazons,' 'Legendary Amazons' tells the story of the Yang Clan, a family of warriors who staunchly defended the Emperors of the Song Dynasty. However, the country is under attack by the armies of a rival state, Western Xia, and the Yang Clan is down to their last general, Zongbao (Richie Jen). Facing defeat, he sends a message off to his wife, Mu (Cecilia Cheung), who rallies her son Wenguang (Xiao Mingyu) and her family of women to continue the fight.
'Legendary Amazons' strives to be an epic. It has a massive cast, with gargantuan action set pieces and elaborate period costumes and set design. Director Chan clearly knows how to use the camera, which is always dynamically placed. On a visual level, 'Legendary Amazons' is never boring, and the film moves at quite a clip, even including flashbacks to add extra action when the plot doesn't call for any.
However, despite all the pomp and circumstance, 'Legendary Amazons' never gels into a cohesive whole. To start, the visual effects are atrocious. The only way to create such a large scale, action-packed picture without spending $500 million is to use CGI for most of the big action sequences. Unfortunately, the CGI used here is so amateurish that it's utterly impossible to suspend your disbelief. It's not just the quality of the effects, but the fact that the CGI characters move wholly unrealistically. In one particular scene, a group of fighters are meant to do a flip in the air together. They do flip, but perfectly in unison, as if they were a row of players on a foosball table, attached at the hip by a metal rod.
The film also has far too many characters. The Yang Clan consists of three generations, and Mu has a whole lot of sisters (remember, this same source material was used for a film called 'The 14 Amazons'). Most of these characters are introduced through a theme song in the beginning of the film, and good luck keeping up with them all and their different abilities. Other than Zongbao, Mu, and Wenguang, it's hard to remember who is who at times, and even harder to care about them.
The other major problem is the incessant overacting. Now, granted, it's sometimes difficult to gauge the quality of actors when you don't speak the native language, but you could turn the sound off on this film and still know exactly what's happening in every scene, because the actors mug so hard I thought their faces might break. Talk about playing to the cheap seats. Even if you could overlook the atrocious CGI and made the effort to remember all the characters overcrowding the film, the ridiculous overacting will surely put the final nail in the film's coffin.
Shot on a Red One camera, the AVC-encoded, 2.35:1 1080p transfer of 'Legendary Amazons' generally looks excellent. Colors are vibrant and well balanced. Details in close-ups and wide shots are easy to discern, so you can see every nook and cranny of the elaborate costumes and sets. The transfer is so good that it shows the flaws evident in the CGI and green-screen work. It looks like some of the effects shots may not even have been rendered at the same resolution as the rest of the film, because you can see artifacting and aliasing in many of those sequences. It's a shame that these shots mar what is an otherwise stellar transfer.
'Legendary Amazons' has two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround tracks and two Dolby 2.0 tracks, one in the original Mandarin and the other with the English dub. The 5.1 mix is incredibly aggressive, with a sensational LFE presence that will shake your whole house. The rears explode with detail, and even quieter scenes feature background noise that bring the film to life. Dynamic range is fantastic, and dialogue is crystal clear.
There is one glaring problem, however. Both of the Mandarin tracks suffer from a persistent digital distortion. It sounds like the disc laser moving back and forth rapidly, but as it's not present in either of the English tracks, I can only surmise it's on the Mandarin soundtrack itself. Luckily, aside from the dialogue, the English dub is virtually identical to the Mandarin mix in terms of directionality, aggressiveness, and clarity, but it offers very poor performances from the English voice actors. Since the Mandarin mix is the native language, this error is a grave disappointment.
'Legendary Amazons' doesn't lack ambition, but it fumbles the execution. The production is ruined by poor CGI, an overabundance of characters, and criminal overacting. The CGI also puts a blemish on the otherwise excellent video transfer, which generally looks fantastic. The audio mix is impressively aggressive, but also features a subtle but noticeable digital distortion in the Mandarin tracks. 'Legendary Amazons' could have been better than it is on all fronts.