SAKRA Review: Takes a Licking, Keeps on Kicking
Donnie Yen stars in and directs a sprawling story of revenge and justice.
"You must die for the sake of the martial arts world."
The film opens Friday, April 14, in select U.S. theaters, and then will be available on digital April 18 via Well Go USA .
Left on a doorstep, a baby grows up to become Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen), leader of the Beggars' Gang, a major force in the Song Dynasty, circa 1100 A.D. In northern China, the Song Dynasty was in constant battle with the Li Dynasty, ruled by the Khitan people.
Adapted from the well-known novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong (pen name of Louis Cha), first serialized in 1963, six credited scriptwriters focus on Qiao Feng's story, as he is framed for murder by Mrs. Ma (Wong Kwan Hing). In truth, she was responsible for her husband's death, in league with a co-conspirator; both were following directions by a mysterious "Leading Brother."
Qiao Feng righteously proclaims his innocence, but then his identity is questioned, as he is accused of being a member of the enemy race, the Khitan. Pushed out of the gang by false testimony, his reputation in tatters, Qiao Feng finds that his sworn brothers have become his sworn enemies.
To add to his woes, it's not long before he is falsely accused of three more murders (his parents and his mentor), and becomes engaged in a furious one-against-many battle with his former brothers. He manages to escape, in the process becoming the savior of Azhu (Chen Yuqi), a servant girl who is deathly ill. Qiao Feng swears that he will help her heal by taking her to the famed Physician Yue, which sets up an epic action sequence, one of a number of busy scenes, filled with flying fists and slashing swords.
Before I get too carried away with retelling the entire story, let me stop there to acknowledge the sprawling nature of the narrative, which will be much more familiar to any current or past readers of the novel, but somewhat overflowing with information for first-time viewers (like yours truly) to follow. Donnie Yen directs -- his first such credit since 2004 -- without much discernible authorship, resulting in a workmanlike epic that sparks to life when action directors Kenji Tanigaki, Yan Hua, Zhang Chao, along with Yen and co-director Kam Ka Wai, get to work their magic on the action sequences.
The action sequences concentrate on overwhelming the viewer with an incredible number of actors, stunt people, ordinary objects, sharp weapons, and visual effects, all flying and crashing through the air. It's quite punishing to watch, and that's how it should be in an action movie.
It's what comes between the action sequences that's disappointing. Donnie Yen himself regresses in his performance, limiting recognizable human behavior to a bare minimum. It makes the character of Qiao Feng less appealing, and diminishes the impact of the action sequences, in which Qiao Feng repeatedly gets beaten and stabbed, so that only a superhero could survive, yet somehow carries on and bounces back as if nothing much happened, thanks to his extraordinary "inner strength."
Yen proved in his Ip Man films, beginning in 2008, that he could be very warm and appealing, building on films like SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005) and Flash Point (2007) in which he was authentically heroic. That was in contrast to his earlier years, in which he was more convincing as a villain, though the action side of his appearances were always impressive.
I've seen and enjoyed many of Yen's films, so perhaps his performance here is simply his interpretation of a character who is very busy being righteous, prizes justice over all else, and leaves little room for warmer colors in his personality. Sakra is good for what it is, an epic martial-arts battle movie that should please action fanatics, without much emotional engagement required.