Throughout history, invaders from foreign lands have tried to take over but are fought off by an elite group of monks called The Masters. When a small town is threatened by a band of evil criminals, a mysterious warrior monk comes to their rescue.
much a patchwork of borrowed moves
Purists may howl in protest, but to me there’s something quietly satisfying about seeing the 'Once Upon a Time in"¦’ template applied everywhere from the British Midlands to Mumbai. It returns to the original spirit of Sergio Leone’s films—slices of immaculately crafted pulp that later had the mantle of Serious Art bestowed upon them—and suggests that the formula is endlessly mutable, and infinitely renewable"¦ provided, of course, that one observes the basic tropes.
Dustin Nguyen has certainly done that. The actor and martial artist, still best known for his 1980s turn in the TV series 21 Jump Street, might spend nights pondering why destiny chose his former co-star—a handsome young scamp named Johnny Depp—and not himself; nevertheless, he acquits himself reasonably well in this first outing as writer-director, showing an efficient visual style and an undeniable flair for staging complicated action sequences. He even begins with an overt homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, with a lone dan nhi player mimicking Charles Bronson playing the harmonica as Jason Robards is introduced.
Perhaps inevitably, Nguyen also stars—as Master Dao, a warrior-monk of near-legendary prowess. Too haunted by long years of slaughtering foreign invaders to return to his former monastic life, he is, in short, a classic loner, one good man in a corrupt world, doomed to wander the Earth righting wrongs Á la Leone’s Man With No Name, or Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Thus, arriving at a remote 'Sand Village,’ he finds a local baker, Hien, being harassed by thugs, pressuring him to sell his shop to a local kingpin. Notwithstanding Dao’s perhaps overly-sensitive nose for social justice (this, you sense, is a man uncommonly reluctant to just let a slight pass unaddressed), he already has a dog in this particular fight: the latter’s wife, Ahn, is one of his old lovers"¦ and her son Hung may in fact be his own.
But Ahn (the beautiful Tranh Van Ngo) is no pushover herself, and Nguyen’s refusal to make her just another damsel-in-distress represents one of this film’s most welcome features. Decked out in skin-tight, Emma Peel-style combat leathers, and wielding not one but two long knives, she’s one of the strongest action-heroines in some time, and Ngo—a famous pop singer in her homeland—makes the most of this opportunity, displaying not only the requisite balletic grace, but a powerfully charismatic screen presence. Watching her dispatch one nameless goon after another, you understand why Dao’s appetites might incline more to temporal concerns than the strictly spiritual.
A little actorly vanity might be detected in this self-portrait—despite the best that his many adversaries can throw at him, the fighting monk’s hair is never less than immaculate—and some of his character’s arc reeks of the Hollywood script-lab. (Dao must learn to 'forgive himself’ before he can hope to prevail over his enemies, as one wise old monk conveniently reminds him.) Yet it’s forgivable, considering the more-is-more approach Nguyen favours otherwise. Showing a cheerful disregard for narrative logic, this appears to be set in some Imperial period of Vietnamese history, with the country besieged by numerous broadsword- and shield-bearing foreign invaders"¦ until Dao shows up riding a Harley-Davidson across the desert.
You have to assume that this was done for the most obvious possible reason: because it looked cool. Likewise, occasional flashes of product-placement that amount to an extended ad for Johnnie Walker whisky, apparently the preferred tipple of most warrior-monks. ('Keep walking,’ ironically, is advice that most of Dao’s enemies would do well to heed.)
Reportedly the most expensive movie yet made in Vietnam, its production values are mostly evident onscreen: the sets are both lavish and beautifully designed, and the cinematography (by Thailand’s Wych Kaosayananda, who, as a director, gave us the thoroughly wretched Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever) makes the most of its locations; anachronisms notwithstanding, Vietnam here is lit and framed so as to resemble an Earthly paradise. (If nothing else, you can see why those invaders were so persistent.) But a little of the CGI seems clumsy, and it falls to more old-fashioned craft—namely, Van Hai Bui’s fight choreography—to deliver the goods.
In the end, it’s enjoyable, if undemanding fun. Nothing here will linger long in the memory, much less join the pantheon of classic action movie sequences—it’s too derivative for that, too much a patchwork of borrowed moves. But the borrowing is done shamelessly and without calculation; it seems the work of an enthusiast, fired by a passionate desire to emulate the movies he grew up loving, and its comparatively small stakes offer a welcome respite from what passes for action these days in mainstream Hollywood flicks—endless CGI carnage of skyscrapers crumbling and bridges buckling, the same tedious spectacle"¦ Sometimes one pissed-off monk (and a Harley) is all you need.