Film review: League of Gods – the only thing special is the effects

Anticlimatic fight scenes, paper-thin characters and a lack of humour are the norm in this CGI-heavy adaptation of Ming dynasty novel

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 10:34am

1.5/5 stars

In this era of mindless blockbusters, the attraction of adapting classic literature often resides in the implicit promise that viewers will be spared the trouble of encountering anything original or thought-provoking. And that’s as good a reason as any that League of Gods, directed by Hong Kong-born visual-effects veteran Koan Xu, brands itself as a big-screen outing of the Ming dynasty novel Investiture of the Gods. When you must stage a pompous mess of a computer-generated spectacle, it often helps to give your paper-thin characters some familiar names from folklore.

To dispel any notion that this might be anything more than an excuse for generic CGI shenanigans, the non-story begins by explaining that desire and ambition start wars – without bothering to cite a word of wisdom from the original text. The tyrannical one is King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who has made a Faustian pact with the Black Dragon (more on that in the inevitable sequel), giving up his physical body for the power to rule the world. Zhou is also bewitched by the beautiful empress Daji (Fan Bingbing), who is in fact an ancient fox demon inexplicably equipped with giant tentacles.

Just as the wicked couple are about to execute a grand elder possessing the secrets to defeating the Black Dragon, a righteous young man Lei (Jacky Heung Cho) – the last descendent of the Wing Tribe, traumatised at age six by Zhou’s invasion – leads a squad of Xiqi soldiers to storm the palace and rescue some imprisoned children from another vanquished tribe. As the good guys make their escape with the help of powerful sorcerer Master Jiang (Jet Li), they’re relentlessly pursued by General Leopard (Louis Koo Tin-lok), a general who rides a big black panther.

If this summary of the film’s first act offers the illusion of a revenge thriller populated with fantastical characters, Xu and his screenwriters have made sure to destroy your hopes by extracting minimal personality from the star-studded cast, ending almost every battle scene with a whimper, and keeping the movie’s campy premise entirely humour-free. It turns out to be a thunderous bore to follow Lei as he assembles his team – warriors Naza (Wen Zhang) and Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), as well as token love interest Blue Butterfly (Angelababy Yeung Wing) – in the quest to find an almighty sword.

Long before galactic cruise ships and a giant orc – a cross between Warcraft and Superman’s Doomsday – arrive as part of Zhou’s invading troops for a final showdown, League of Gods has lost its gravitas amid the deluge of artificial effects, which inadvertently creep me out with half-hearted renditions of everything from a gigantic centipede in the desert to some giant killer crabs in an underwater palace. (The less said about the poorly animated Jet Li, however, the better.) As it is, the best condition to consume this wacky action fantasy – not that you should feel obliged to – is intoxicated.

League of Gods opens on July 29

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