Written in the 1300s, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the most famous novels in all of China and, indeed, all of Asia. It covers a famous period in Chinese history from 169-280 C.E., blending historical and heightened fiction; think Shakespeare’s historical plays. Its cultural impact is hard to overstate: TV series, movies and video games have been based on the story and its truly iconic characters. I don’t mean Avengers iconic. I mean Robin Hood. King Arthur. Mythic, cross-generational, centuries-spanning iconic.
Dynasty Warriors is, wait for it, the film adaptation of the videogame adaptation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The games allow players to re-create the thrilling battles and stories of the Three Kingdoms’ legendary characters, with the added bonus of rock music while the players simultaneously slaughter hundreds of enemies. It’s a ton of fun and has a massive fanbase throughout the world. So given that the games are a thing unto themselves, and other Three Kingdoms movies exist (such as John Woo’s seminal Red Cliff or the underrated Resurrection of the Dragon), what is the point of Dynasty Warriors as a film? Surely it should be a chance for the famous characters to do some crazy fights to rock music? The answer to that would be yes, and happily, it delivers.
The film starts at, appropriately, the start of the Three Kingdoms era, following Liu Bei and his friends Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. The film assumes familiarity with both the games and the Three Kingdoms story but does its best to allow Western viewers to catch up. Liu Bei and company are trying to save the failing Han dynasty. To do so, they team up with the ruthless yet principled Cao Cao (think shades of Magneto) who, in the future, will become their primary adversary for control of China. Knowing where all the main characters are headed does lend a fun prequel vibe to the affair while still making it accessible to those new to the franchise.
The main cast is solid at their work, but the real stars here are Hong Kong pros Louis Koo as the villainous Lu Bu and Lam Suet as arch antagonist Dong Zhou. Both ham it up to 11, being over-the-top and yet sincere, and help give the film both weight and humor. Koo in particular is a delight playing the villainous role with as much of a straight face as he does an exaggerated one.
The film was shot in New Zealand, and it takes advantage of the location. Keen-eyed Lord of the Rings fans are sure to notice some visual similarities in the environment. It helps that a story about heightened individuals would be shot in a place that feels unreal. The action is exactly what this movie requires, which is to say over-the-top and enjoyable.
For example, Lu Bu drifts a horse and then rides the same horse along the inside of a wave. Then he and his friends soar through the air with their legendary weapons charged and throw hundreds of enemy soldiers around like ants. These are the kind of fights that Western critics went gaga for in Aquaman but routinely ignore in Chinese media. They just leave you with a grin on your face. The fights are relatively frequent, and the film does a good job of balancing the story to give them context and weight but also room to deploy the fun spectacle demanded of a Dynasty Warriors film.
The effects are decidedly in the video-game realm and the fights nowhere near as stunning as Woo’s aforementioned Red Cliff. Still, they fit the quality and vibe of the production far more than a more accomplished and realistic set of fights. The music that accompanies these crazy clashes is appropriately rock-infused and helps add to the air of fun prevalent throughout the proceedings. This really is a movie that’s hard to not have a good time with once you find its level and groove.
Sadly, Dynasty Warriors reportedly only made 1/12th of its extensive budget back before being released on Netflix worldwide. This means we are unlikely to see a sequel anytime soon, which is especially frustrating given an end-tag of “And now the Three Kingdoms begins.” Thankfully, fans of Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Lu Bu and Zhang Fei have plenty of other media to tell their story from the books to other films, as well as the Dynasty Warriors games themselves. All things told, Dynasty Warriors will unlikely go down as any sort of classic, but it does provide an almost Three Kingdoms Season 0 in which Western fans can engage. Most importantly, it is a lot of fun.