Excluding last year’s New Kung Fu Cult Master 1, where Donnie Yen shows up in a cameo appearance as Cheung Sam-Fung, the last time he led a wuxia film was the atrocious Netflix’s English-speaking (!) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny in 2016. Sakra, which is based on Jin Yong’s famous wuxia novel ‘Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils’, marks the international action superstar’s return to the aforementioned genre. In addition to playing the lead role as Qiao Feng, he also pulled off triple duties behind the cameras as the co-action director, producer, and even director.
Before I get to the review, here’s what you need to know about Sakra: Qiao Feng (Yen) is the righteous and heroic leader of the Beggars’ Sect, where we learn that Mrs. Ma (Grace Wong) and the gang’s law-enforcement elder Bai Shijing (Du Yuming) accused him of murdering her husband, who also happens to be the deputy chief of the gang. With no one in the gang stood by his side, Qiao Feng is forced to abandon the leadership and is determined to find out the truth as well as seek his true heritage as a Khitan people.
Over the course of the journey, Qiao Feng faces more accusations of murdering his adoptive parents and his Shaolin master. And the only person believing in him is a maid named Azhu (Chen Yuqi), who gradually falls in love with Qiao Feng.
First things first, I’m not going to focus on how faithful Sakra is according to the original source material since I never read the novel before. Instead, I’m judging the movie based on its own merits and I must say the otherwise potentially intriguing story is rather questionable. The way the story is told such as why Qian Feng would rather be prioritizing more on Azhu and finding his own roots than searching for the truth to clear his name, which is supposed to be the main point of the movie.
There are a few other things that bother me too, namely the movie’s reluctance in using the more effective show-and-tell approach to describe the murder of the gang’s deputy chief that leads to framing Qian Feng. The movie relies so heavily on verbal expositions and narrative shortcuts by skipping certain key events that are supposed to be crucial to the story. This, in turn, made the movie feels incoherent as if it suffers from haphazard editing in an attempt to condense the whole story into a manageable two-hour – 130 minutes, to be exact – runtime.
Sakra is also meant to be a potential franchise starter, which means we’ll get more sequels if the first movie is successful enough to warrant subsequent follow-ups. If that was the intention as revealed in last year’s Cannes during the international sales line-up, why Yen chose to rush the storyline in the first movie itself? He could have taken the time to tell the story without sacrificing the essential details and some of the plot elements, notably the second half of the movie that introduces new characters including Duan Zhengchun (Eddie Cheung), his lover Ruan Xingzhu (Kara Wai) and their rebellious daughter, Azi (Cya Liu) are oddly disconnected. The fact that enlisting the caliber of these three reputable actors should have been something to look forward to. But because of how hasty these characters are introduced in Sakra, it sure made me feel as if they are more like mere obligations than necessities that should be given proper character development.
Muddled storytelling aside, Sakra excels the most when comes to the action sequences. Yen, who choreographed the set pieces alongside Kenji Tanigaki of the live-action Rurouni Kenshin franchise fame, effectively combines the wirework-heavy martial arts with the gritty vibe of a modern action movie. We also get to see Yen’s Qiao Feng character display several iconic moves including the powerful ‘Eighteen Subduing Dragon Palms’ technique and even though the special effects can be inconsistent at times, it remains forgivable with all the visceral impact shown in its dynamic camerawork and acrobatic choreography.
The earlier scene where Qiao Feng faces an evil monk in the restaurant is among the prime examples here, showcasing Yen’s impressive agility and martial arts prowess even for an international action star who already reached 59 years of age. The same also goes with the later scene, where he single-handedly fights against different sects at the Juxian Manor and the one-on-one battle between Qiao Feng and Murong Fu (Wu Yue), the scheming ruler responsible for masterminding the whole frame-up.
Except whenever Yen is required to emote in some of the dramatic and romantic moments, his limited acting range started to rear its ugly head. This is especially true during his quiet and intimate moments with Azhu. They somehow lack the necessary sparks in their on-screen chemistry and seeing them together feels awkward too, given their huge age gap in real-life (Chen Yuqi is 30 years old) that they look more convincing as siblings or a father-and-daughter relationship rather than lovers.
Perhaps Yen isn’t the right director capable enough of handling the sprawling story of Jin Yong’s ‘Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” novel that covers worldbuilding narratives and multiple character introductions. He remains adept in the action department as usual, which I personally figured he should have stuck to what he does best and left the direction to a more qualified filmmaker, say someone like Tsui Hark, especially if there’s a sequel in the future.