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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

THE TREASURE HUNTER -- DVD review by porfle

THE TREASURE HUNTER (2009) is one of those action-adventure flicks where certain parts are greater than the whole, but that may be enough to make it worth watching--even if several of those parts are from other, better movies.

We're first introduced to the Eagle of the Desert, a lone warrior who protects the ancient treasures buried beneath its sands from tomb raiders.  He keeps this job until somebody comes along who can defeat him.  These sand-clogged fight scenes are the best-looking in the movie and it makes me wonder why the rest of them weren't done so well.  After such a changing of the guard, Qiaofei (Jay Chou, THE GREEN HORNET) returns to the real world, hanging out in a remote tavern and forcing passing scavengers to hand over their ill-gotten booty to be returned to their rightful place.

You may think you've wandered into a hyped-up Sergio Leone film when director Yen-ping Chu starts quoting shots from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, complete with open-air saloon, spinning windmill, locations that sometimes resemble Monument Valley, and other obvious reminders.  When a group of raiders barge through the swinging doors in a cloud of dust, you'll recall Jason Robards' gang arriving to rescue him from his escort on the way to prison. 

Then Qiaofei saunters down the stairs to engage them in battle, which is a mish-mash of martial arts and Robert Rodriguez-style moves which reminds us that bad wirework, not-too-sharp fight choreography, and sloppy action camerawork are still alive and well in the cinema.  It's all pretty lively, though, and every once in a while something happens that's cool enough to be worth rewinding for--as when Qiaofei reassembles the pieces of an automatic pistol as though by sleight of hand, just in time to blow away an armored boogeyman erupting out of the earth and charging at him on horseback across the saloon floor.

More supernatural stuff enters the picture with the appearance of a semi-mummified guy (he actually looks like he just climbed out of a vat of Charmin) whose wrappings become lashing tentacles--here the film loosely resembles a CGI-fueled superhero flick with echoes of THE MATRIX.  Indiana Jones is invoked when a treasure map to a lost desert temple pits Qiaofei against a mysterious fedora-wearing fortune hunter named Hua (Daoming Chen) and his rotund, avaricious comedy sidekick Pork Rib (Eric Tsang). 

Qiaofei's "Marian Ravenwood" equivalent is Lan (Chiling Lin), with whom he has a longstanding love-hate relationship that's renewed when she finds herself along for the ride.  Along the way, turbulent reunions with both his sister and the current Eagle of the Desert will yield some heart-tugging drama (or a reasonable fascimile thereof) in addition to more frenetic fight action.

Aside from a few draggy spots (mostly the romantic, touchy-feely scenes), THE TREASURE HUNTER moves through its action setpieces at a pretty fast clip.  A lengthy encounter with a band of horsemen called the Sandstorm Raiders, who are followed everywhere they go by a huge, sandy tornado, turns into a chase that's right out of both THE ROAD WARRIOR and STAGECOACH. 

It's a lively enough sequence which, unfortunately, is marred by the apparent use of the kind of horse-tripping stunts that have always made me cringe.  It's hard to enjoy a scene where dozens of galloping horses are having their front legs yanked out from under them, driving them headfirst into the ground.

The final sequence inside the buried temple--which is reminiscent of Stephen Somers' MUMMY films (in addition to Universal's 1940 THE MUMMY'S HAND)--features people turning into ghouls, ghostly sword-slinging wraiths flitting around, and more Indiana Jones-type booby traps, with some surprisingly good CGI. 

As in various Leone films, Hua's intermittent flashbacks of his first expedition to the site finally play out to reveal why he's so obsessed with finding it again.  This aspect of the story helps add some emotional weight to the film's climax, as does the final scene between Lan and Qiaofei, ultimately making THE TREASURE HUNTER seem slightly more than an elaborate but superficial comic book adventure.  Although, basically, that's exactly what it is.

The DVD from Funimation is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital soundtracks in Mandarin and English, with English subtitles.  The only extras are trailers for this and other Funimation releases.

Lavish but wildly uneven, THE TREASURE HUNTER occasionally captures the epic feel that it's striving for while remaining, for the most part, a not-altogether successful attempt to transcend its familiar storyline and mish-mash of derivative elements.  If you understood why THE BEASTMASTER was fun to watch on cable back in the 80s, you may find this slapdash adventure mildly diverting as well.

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