Let's be clear up front: Heavenly Sword is a downright terrible film. It is a cheap-looking mess of a movie that neither fans of the game nor series newcomers are likely to enjoy.
If the film does one thing right, it's that it's not afraid to change the game's story. And while the results are often more than a little terrible (we'll get to that in a bit), there is at least one major change for the better.
Much of the Heavenly Sword film revolves around Nariko and Kai hunting for the Chosen One so that they can give him the Heavenly Sword and he can defeat Bohan. This serves to give the adventure an immediate sense of urgency as the heroes race against Bohan’s minions and takes the two heroes to more varied locations than those seen in the game. Instead of the rocky plains and mountains that serve as the setting for the game, the film travels swampy villages and even a city built inside a volcano.
This search for the Chosen One also serves to flesh out Shen's character, showing how broken he became with Nariko being born female and his subsequent quest to spread his seed and make a son by any means necessary. It also, of course, makes him a far less likable character—and potentially an evil one. But unfortunately, he's not the only one to receive a major shift in his character.
King Bohan, the film's antagonist, and Kai are also changed drastically in the film. Portrayed by Andy Serkis in the game, Bohan has been recast for this movie. And along with the recasting, Bohan has received a rewrite, losing all of what made him an interesting character. In the game, Bohan is an eccentric—possibly insane—pig of a man, lusting after the Heavenly Sword (and Nariko herself) for no other reason than he wants it (and her) as a prize. He is more than willing to commit genocide to get his wish.
In the film he is more a typical evil king stereotype: He wants the sword destroyed and the Chosen One killed because prophecy states that combined, they are the only thing that can stop his lust for conquest. And while he is no doubt evil, he seems far from insane. Basically, he is just bland.
Like Bohan, Kai as the game character was truly compelling because of her insanity. She personified a child-like innocence which contrasted greatly with the acts of violence she committed. To her, killing people was a game; and she found it hard to concentrate on anything beyond her immediate wants and needs. Moreover, the trauma that made her that way and how it came back to haunt her are some of the most emotional and well-acted moments of the game—yet, they are absent from the film entirely.
Kai in the film has several of the same quirks as her game counterpart. Yet she is both far more mentally stable and possesses a completely new backstory to boot. The Kai in the film is simply another bastard child of Shen who came to live with Shen upon her mother's death. While this does help to tie in with the search for the Chosen One, it also robs the character of everything that made her game counterpart so enjoyable and easy to sympathize with.
There are a lot of plot holes and inconsistencies in the Heavenly Sword movie. These range from the nitpicky—e.g., the Heavenly Sword being wrapped in cloth cords in one scene and being a bare blade the next before suddenly reverting again—to the gaping holes—like why does Bohan continue to hunt Nariko even after he has already won. Hell, it's never really explained why Nariko doesn't just hand over the sword at that point either. After all, all that Bohan wants to do is destroy it. With the sword gone, he'd have no reason to hunt Nariko, Kai, or any of the others in her tribe.
There are also moments that shatter the suspension of disbelief—i.e., the fact that Kai was somehow alive after the length of time she remained hanged (regardless of the fact she had a hand in the noose)—and a lot of contrived writing—i.e., Nariko having the power to heal but not healing Kai immediately after said hanging.
The pacing in the movie is also terrible. Normally you hear complaints about movies dragging. Not here. It never slows down—especially when it should. Thus, there is never enough time to properly savor the impact of emotional moments. What should be earth-shattering revelations simply pop up out of nowhere and leave just as quickly. It is therefore impossible to identify with the characters or their peril.
Conversations and arguments seem likewise rushed. People will have opposing viewpoints for all of twenty seconds before suddenly agreeing with the other party so the plot can continue on. This in turn makes the characters seem both brash and fickle—quick to act on their ideas but with little conviction when confronted with even the weakest arguments.
There are more than a few of these quick arguments in the first half of the movie—which is pretty much nothing but exposition. First the narrator explains the history of the sword. Then we get exposition about Nariko and Kai being outcasts. After that we get narration about Bohan, followed by a scene of Bohan telling Nariko the backstory of Shen, Kai, and the Chosen One. This is then followed by more exposition where Kai and Nariko talk about their respective parentage. In between each of these I have mentioned, there are more, smaller scenes of exposition. Other than a single short fight, the first half is nothing but talk to explain the film's backstory.
Perhaps one reason why there is too much talking and not enough action in Heavenly Sword has to do with how bad the animation looks when the characters are doing anything else. Simply put, the whole production looks cheap—like a mid 90's Mainframe Entertainment TV show with HD character models. The characters move unnaturally and often seem to glide across the floor—which unfortunately make sense as all floors and other terrain in the film are perfectly level, with only different textures to imply anything else. Moreover, everything is painfully spartan with muted color filters, and the enemy character models are reused ad infinitum. The only improvement in the animation department is the various characters' hair models and movement physics.
But what really kills me is the lack of transitional shots in the action scenes. In most movies, we would see a character start to punch, see the punch connect, and then see the hit person stumble back. However, the vast majority of the time in Heavenly Sword, the middle shot—i.e., the attack connecting—is skipped completely. We see Nariko start to swing the sword and immediately cut to enemies flying through the air. The result is simple: the action scenes feel disjointed and confusing. The one time this isn't true is the first part of the climactic final battle—as Nariko fights an army single handedly with the speed-up-slow-down technique from 300. Sadly, it is only about a minute long and far too little too late.
To sum it all up, let me put it this way: a game from 2007 looks better than this film released in 2014.
Not only is the music in this film utterly forgettable, it doesn't even come close to properly matching what is happening on screen. It feels like the soundtrack was composed independently of the film and thus there are no swells at any of the dramatic climaxes. Rather, the music just goes at an even pace throughout every scene. Yes, sad music plays during a “sad” scene, and action music plays during an “action” scene. But as the typical nuances of the music never match with what's happening, much of the attempted emotional impact is lost.
Heavenly Sword is a movie lacking on every level. It is badly animated, poorly put together, terribly scored, and horribly full of plot holes. Moreover, it takes everything special about the game's two best characters and leaves it on the side of the road. While it was nice to hear
Kai and Nariko's voice actors again, and it is commendable that the creators took some liberties to try to improve the story, that does little to make this movie watchable. [Edit: I was mistaken about Lydia Baksh returning, actress Ashleigh Ball does a fantastic Kai though.] Save your time and save your money: Just play the game on the PS3 instead. It's only about six hours long, and I had an infinitely better time revisiting it for this review than I did watching the film.
Heavenly Sword was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 2, 2014.
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