Sometimes lazily and erroneously branded as a “Chinese X-Men”, a franchise with which it has very little in common beyond CGI and powers, Koan Hui’s League of Gods is actually much closer – in concept, story and visuals – to Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, not that the marketing team would want to play that particular angle, following the much-publicized flop of that film (which we actually liked, for all its faults). It’s set in a mythical ancient China ruled by the evil king Zhou (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and his consort Daji (Fan Bingbing), who’s actually a Nine-Tail Fox demon who pulls the strings on every one of his power-hungry moves. But Zhou is met with resistance from the kingdom of Xiqi, ruled by king Ji Chang (Zu Feng) and old strategist Jiang Ziya (Jet Li). The latter sends his protégé Lei Zhenzi (Jacky Heung), the last of a once-flourishing winged tribe, on a mission to retrieve the Sword of Light, which is the only weapon that can defeat the Black Dragon, the evil and powerful entity from which king Zhou draws his power. In his quest, Lei Zhenzi relies on the help of Ji Fa (Andy On), his childhood friend and the son of king Ji Chang, Nezha (Wen Zhang), a rambunctious warrior who alternatively appears as a baby and a grown man, and Erlangshen (Huang Xiaoming), a mysterious warrior with a truth-seeking third eye. Lei Zhenzi also meets Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) a whimsical young woman with whom he falls in love, but who’s actually a creation of Shengong Bao (Louis Koo), king Zhou’s chief general, who has orders to kill him and his companions.
League of Gods is plagued by an unholy trinity of flaws reminiscent of most recent Chinese fantasy epics. First, an unruly narrative that constantly introduces new characters with only perfunctory introductions – making any emotional involvement almost impossible – and piles on backstories that are so numerous and quickly-sketched that they rob the film of its dramatic impact, rather than adding to it. Second, abstruse stakes: finding a Sword of Light to defeat a never-glimpsed black dragon, across a fantasy world whose geography, natural laws and mythical tenets are never clearly defined, makes for uninvolving drama that creates its rules as it goes. And third, uneven visuals; much like Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu’s Zhong Kui, League of Gods has stunning backgrounds, impressive sets, glorious costumes, inspired creature-design and fine cinematography, but devolves into a jerky, weightless and poorly-rendered mess any time it wants to have its mythical entities fight one another, which is very often. Except for a fairly exciting last-reel fight between the Lei Zhenzi (winged and wielding thunder), Nezha (mounted on fire wheels and throwing powerful rings), Erlangshen (golden-plated and assisted by a massive dog) and a balrog-like incarnation of Shengong Bao, most of the protracted showdowns in the film feel interminable.
At a little under 100 minutes, League of Gods moves at a crisp, almost overactive pace that undercuts it epic ambitions – it seems always in a rush to reach the next showdown or encounter, never letting scenes play out to satisfying dramatic effect – just as it keeps it from ever boring its audience. As mentioned, Arthur Wong’s cinematography and Lv Fengshan’s costumes are gloriously lavish, along with very inspired art direction that manages to hint at a rich and wide mythical world much more than the script can. John Debney’s score is a massive and gorgeous undertaking that plays the cyclopean, mythical angle more than the Asian one, much like Basil Poledouris’ superlative Conan the Barbarian score went for a ‘pre-Christian’ and operatic vibe. And the starry cast is a delight: there’s a certain thrill to seeing so many charismatic stars hamming it up in elaborate fantasy costumes, essaying strikingly one-dimensional roles.
Jet Li, though first-billed, is only in the film for roughly half-an-hour, but he obviously hasn’t had that much fun since 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom. His character having been hit with a reverse-aging curse, the star goes from prosthetic-assisted old age to motion-captured youth, and infuses his character with whimsical wisdom and understated swagger. Age becomes Li, and we hope he’ll reconsider his semi-retirement from cinema. The film’s actual lead, Jacky Heung, is superbly athletic but only moderately charismatic; he has the makings of a fine supporting actor, but is somewhat lacking as a hero, and the ever-reliable Andy On makes more of an impression as his comrade in arms. Tony Leung Ka Fai, Louis Koo and Huang Xiaoming have some of the best costumes but are content with brooding magnetically, while Fan Bingbing, looking truly godly, goes over-the-top slinky as a femme fatale to make all other femmes fatales look like nuns.
Xu Qing has a short but memorable cameo as an angry goddess, while Angelababy brings child-like beauty to her role as an automaton with feelings. Wen Zhang is great fun as Nezha, though he’s overshadowed by the baby incarnation of his character, a delightfully animated creation that gets the film’s most memorable (and mind-numbingly absurd) scene: in search of his fire wheels, baby Nezha lays waste to an entire undersea palace with a destructive flood of pee and explosive farts, splitting giant crabs in two and bullying a giant octopus, much to the chagrin of the East Sea King – played by Waise Lee, who hasn’t been so unhinged and hilarious since 1994’s Wing Chun – and much to the bewilderment of this reviewer. Did we mention this comes right after a short musical number during which merfolk waddle to a fun little song? The film having underperformed at the box office, we may never see the sequel which is so abruptly set up in the final minutes, but surely we can still re-watch the merfolk song.
Long Story Short: Plagued by abstruse stakes, a crammed but undercooked narrative and uneven CGI, League of Gods nevertheless offers considerable visual delights, a few absurd interludes, and a lot of stars hamming it up with style. **1/2