Sunday, August 28, 2016

Time Raiders: Another Tomb Raiding Franchise Gets the Feature Treatment

This excursion into the haunted tombs of western China ought to scare the willies out of Hollywood. It grossed $70 million in its opening weekend, but for added international attraction it looked to Bollywood rather than Tinseltown. For the record, it is not also based on the Ghost Blows Out the Light franchise. Instead, it is adapted from Xu Lei’s Daomu Biji novels, which has also spawned the competing television series The Lost Tomb. Officially, the supernatural does not exist in China, but it sure makes a lot of noise anyway in Daniel Lee’s Time Raiders (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

In China, being in the “antiquities” business can be dangerous, especially the way Wu Xie’s family practices it. His Uncle Three desperately wants him to excel in a straighter line of work, but tomb raiding is in his blood. The title refers to them as “Time Raiders,” but all their raiding takes place in tombs. Of course, it would be a gifted scholar like Wu who unearths clues to the location of the fabled Snake Empress’s tomb.

Unfortunately, they have unwanted company on this expedition. They will be relentlessly pursued by a rival team of mercenaries led by Captain Ning A, retained by Hendrix, a shadowy western jillionaire. Zhang Kylin, a strong silent member of Wu’s party has some bitter history with Hendrix dating back fifty years, when the Himalayan martial artist last foiled the super-villain’s plans. Despite all his efforts, Hendrix has not aged well since that day, whereas Zhang has apparently not aged at all, so don’t scoff at the benefits of virtuous living.

Of course, when everyone gets where they are going, there will be a lot of shooting, crashing through crumbling floors, evading swarms of flesh-eating insects, and dodging the arrows of a marionette army. That is the good news. The bad news is the connective narrative is definitely on the ragged side. The third act is basically a logic-free zone, punctuated by some remarkably awkward dialogue exchanges. Frankly, Time Raiders makes Mojin look like Citizen Kane and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe look like The Magnificent Ambersons, but if you dig huge set pieces and over the top spectacle, it is still good clean fun.

In fact, it is a minor triumph for the set design team (in collaboration with the SFX team). For the most part, the 3D is unnecessary, but it does gives viewers an eerie sense of the vastness of the underground caverns. We are talking big here.

For Chinese audiences, former EXO boy band member is also a huge marquee name, but not so much here. Jing Boran is better known in the West (probably for Monster Hunt, but Lost and Love is a far better showcase for his talents). He is actually pretty credible as the hardnosed, severely-tempered Zhang, sort of resembling a younger Chen Kun. However, Luhan is so delicate looking, their bromance scenes take on sexually ambiguous overtones that are assuredly completely unintentional, given the state’s frequent censorship of homoerotic subject matter.

However, Ma Sichun makes a convincing bid for international breakout superstardom as the steely Ning A. Her action chops are first-rate and her attitude is appealingly barbed. She is the one viewers will remember, not Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat, who basically just serves as an anchor for a swirling mass of CG effects as the Snake Empress.

It is strange that books and films about tomb plundering are so popular in China, given the government’s hardline against the practice. You could almost call it cultural appropriation, since American filmmakers essentially invented the genre with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Yet, Hollywood rarely makes such cliffhanger adventures anymore, so it is up to China to fill the vacuum. Mojin is still the best (probably since The Last Crusade), but at least Time Raiders is eager to please, putting it all up there on the screen. Recommended as slightly nutty, popcorn entertainment, Time Raiders is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire, via distributor Magnum Films.