This is not what those fearing Hollywood being knocked off the top and replaced by China had in mind. Iceman: the time traveler – the new Blockbuster starring Simon Yam & Donnie Yen – is inept on almost every conceivable level much to the point where it would be all too easy to tear this thing to pieces. However, I am going to talk about something else instead of just piling on top of the critical mauling that Raymond Yip’s latest has already been subject to. There is a much more interesting discussion at the heart of this film and before I get into that I do need to run my fingers through the mess first.
Entering expecting a Donnie Yen fronted remake of Clarence Fok’s Yuen Biao vehicle the Iceman Cometh (1989) instead I was greeted by an incoherent sequel which spends the first 15 minutes (of 100) recapping its prequel. Then there is enough convoluted storytelling to stoke the fires of a thousand critics, a story that makes no sense with a love interest who is barely present, bad acting across the board, a melodramatic streak featuring the same emotional Chinese ballad, twice. The action is poorly choreographed on the odd occasion there is a substantial fight, and it is over-edited to the point where you cannot see who is doing what and to whom. There’s more, Iceman is a sub-Dr. Strange case of world-bending and time traveling and no character has any significant motivation for any of their actions. And its ending, abrupt as it is, renders the entire film meaningless. I can only think of one word to sum this all up – bewildering.
This is all coming from a signed up fan of this martial arts cinema, if however, this was approached by someone discovering this stuff after enjoying the Raid movies or The Night comes for us, they would find this almost unwatchable. Certain titles from Hong Kong cinema’s wacky Category III are unwatchable but at least they are fun. Now, if you subscribe to the theory that films can be so bad they become good there may be something to salvage. I don’t count myself among that company, even so, I was still unable to stifle the laughs when the credits rolled and it openly set up a further sequel.
As I said earlier, I am not going to pile on to an already easy target. Instead, I am going to talk about why it has gone wrong, and the answer to that query can be summed up with one word – globalisation. Let’s go back to the 1970s through to the mid-1990s, an era where most of China’s significant output was made in Hong Kong. Hong Kong action cinema gave birth to the former coolest actor on the planet, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jackie Chan, the most recognisable modern-day actor on the planet. There are also all-time great directors like John Woo, Yuen Woo Ping, Chang Cheh, and Lau Kar-Leung. These names came up through a system that made films for their own native audiences but because of the skill and invention involved they escaped into the wider world, with each accruing legendary status along the way. That is pop culture globalisation the way in which it should work in which talent rises to the top, where Jackie Chan can become the biggest star on the planet and Korean directors can helm Hollywood films and Hollywood talent work in Chinese, Hollywood and Japanese productions. We are all members of the same species on the same planet, this is how it should be – confining ourselves to our own little corner is to the benefit of no-one.
Unfortunately, doors open both ways – there are good effects of globalisation and there are bad. We can get Korean dramas on global Netflix at the same time countries with a well developed national cinema can be subjected to what we offer too. More often than not those Western exports tend to skew towards the crasser end of pop culture. East to West is finely curated, West to East is not. Here’s one example that I often crank out and its the old gem that Jackie Chan didn’t like his Hollywood years as they were mired by over editing and were too slick by far. In the past decade or so, the norm of Asian action films being edited in a way that put the physical capabilities of the cast at the center has eroded. Asian cinema is becoming more and more Western. Asian cinema has become more and more paint by numbers, lowest common denominator stuff – at least in the mainstream space. No matter where in the world you go, the winner of globalisation is always America; just look at the music charts or all those British films playing at your local megaplex. Such a preferential treatment and one-sided dominance have given birth to waves of risk-averse productions that have been made to appeal to as many as possible, just look at the Iceman for the perfect example. Hollywood has been this way since the 1990s, maybe even as far back as the late 60s (in the studio space), whereas the Japanese, Korean or Chinese mainstream have become noticeable less special with each passing year.
As bad as it is, this is a victim of these industry trends, the product of a broken system. Raymond Yip’s film as a product is well made and to a high standard, it’s the concept of appealing to the widest spectrum in the writing and many performance aspects sabotage the entire endeavour. Iceman: the Time Traveller a tragic victim of an industry losing its identity and not an egregious assault on the senses, like other outlets have suggested. Martial Arts cinema has always been off in its own little corner, with horror and other traditional outsider genres, and for it to be affected by these trends says a lot. That sums up the issue perfectly; the problem with globalisation is that it gets everywhere and no one really wins, the fact Iceman bombed at the Chinese box-office is surprising to no-one.