There are those rare movie moments that are pure magic for me. Times when I suddenly realize that I’m not just watching a good movie, I’m watching a great movie. They are few and far between, but they are there. There’s the first time I saw the T-1000 morph in Terminator 2. And the first time I saw Jackie Chan stare death in the face during a hair-raising stunt. And let’s not forget the lesbian barfight in Foxy Brown. And then there’s the… well, I could go on and on. Suffice to say, Duel to the Death entered those illustrious ranks as soon I saw the first exploding kamikaze ninja.
Yeah, that’s right… Not just any old ordinary kamikaze ninja. An exploding kamikaze ninja. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is Duel to the Death. And when you add great acting, terrific action sequences, an ultimately tragic and poignant story, and beautiful cinematography… well, that just sweetens the deal. However, this movie also works as just a riotous movie chock full of furious wuxia/swordplay/martial arts action. As such, it ultimately pleases the aesthetic side of me that wants a stirring story and well-executed film, and the action side of me that just wants to see a lot of butt-kicking and bloodshed.
The movie focuses on two main characters, Hashimoto and Ching Wan, and the events that lead up to their duel. Both are expert swordsmen, the best their countries have to offer (Hashimoto being from Japan and Ching Wan from China). The two are duelling in order to prove which country has the best warriors. However, the two warriors are caught up in personal honor and such. Each wants to prove himself the best warrior, and each see the other as an equal.
Unfortunately, other forces are at work. It seems the Japanese Shogun wishes to capture the secrets of Chinese martial arts, and has sent over an army of ninjas to accomplish such a task. Hashimoto is ignorant of this at the start. For him, it’s just a personal contest to prove his worth. However, as the movie progresses, he starts to wise up to the Shogun’s tricks and becomes torn. He has sworn allegiance to the Shogun, but his sense of honor is disgusted at the Shogun’s duplicity.
Ching Wan also wants to test his skills, and sees the duel as a way to prove his masters that he is a capable student. Although he suspects the Japanese of being dishonest, he is caught up in the honor as well, and insists that he must fight Hashimoto in order to prove China’s worth. However, there is betrayal among the Chinese as well. By the film’s end, the two warriors must not only prepare to battle eachother, but it becomes increasingly obvious that the other parties at work will prevent the duel from being a mere test of skill and valor.
Unlike some of the wuxia films I’ve seen, this one holds up remarkably well under repeated viewings. The story, with the two warriors surrounded by political deceit, racial tensions, and personal betrayal, must ultimately decide what true honor is. And of course, it leads up to a tragic end that shows, in the most graphic terms, the emptiness that can lie at the heart of such honor. Both Norman Tsui Siu-Keung (Wing Chun) and Damian Lau (Last Hurrah For Chivalry) give superb performances, especially during the final battle. Although they are enemies, they respect and admire eachother; in a different world, perhaps, they might even be allies and friends.
Another reason that Duel to the Death holds up to multiple viewings — and believe me, there will be multiple viewings — is the superb action. This is why I love these kinds of movies. I swear that you could stare at a different square inch of the screen each time you watch this movie, and see something new. The fight scenes are a visual riot; blades slice and blur through the air, fists and feet fly with abandon, and bodies careen and bounce around the screen so much it makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon seem tame. Forget about the laws of physics, people. I’m not sure, but I think the ability to use your sword as a springboard to jump higher while flying in midair violates at least one of Newton’s laws. But screw all that nonsense; things like that just make for a darn fine swordfight.
And then there’s the ninjas. Ah yes, it’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the ninjas. Ninjas are everywhere in this movie. They fly through the sky on giant kites. They soar through the trees. They turn invisible. They can combine to form giant ninjas, Voltron-style. And they explode. And explode. And explode. Not since Chinese Super Ninjas have I seen such ninjalicious action.
Everything in this movie is over the top, and as you can see, I love ranting about it. But I love ranting about it even more because it’s such a great story. Oh sure, you get to see a man’s decapitated head fly through the air, impale itself on a tree branch, utter a last threat, and explode… but you also get to see a great, and maybe even moving story about the weight of honor in a world without any. It’s a rare case where a movie’s insane action and its drama complement and strengthen eachother. Let the masses have their Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As much as I loved that movie, I’ll take Duel to the Death any day.