Yang Shupeng’s The Robbers takes places during the Tang dynasty and follows two robbers (Hu Jun and Jiang Wu) who arrive to a small village and are about to rob one of the houses, when a group of soldiers burst into the village and start raping a young woman. The two robbers intervene and kill the soldiers, but they are not met with gratitude from the villagers who, led by a narrow-minded mayor, fear the army’s retaliation. They tie up the robbers to deliver them to the authorities, but when a larger contingent of soldiers arrives to the village and starts ransacking it, the robbers once again intervene and kill them. They then decide to stay for a while, as they are both falling in love with local girls. But the mayor is still intent on giving them up to the authorities.
The Robbers‘ premise is interesting, like a sardonic twist on Seven Samurai, where the protectors of the village are just two, are only robbers, and are not even appreciated by the villagers. There are strong satirical overtones: the ignorant, ungrateful villagers believe anything their donkey-riding mayors tells them, respect an abusive law more than a well-meaning protector, and have the attention span of a goldfish. They also worship a shabby armor that is supposed to have been that of General Zhao Zilong (played by Hu jun in John Woo’s Red Cliff). But the film is hampered by a repetitive structure (the robbers protect the village, are tied up by the villagers, escape, come back, woo girls, protect the village again, and so on) and an obvious lack of budget in the fight scenes, which are serviceable but edited with corner-cutting tricks. Still, there’s an enjoyable unpredictable edge to the proceedings, with sudden bursts of unforgiving violence, and a bold lack of likable characters. Hu Jun and Jiang Wu make for a formidable duo, the former enjoyably deadpan, and the latter recalling Gérard Depardieu in his unhinged mode.
Long Story Short: An interesting but repetitive and often clumsy mix of action, black comedy and satire. **1/2