SAKRA Review: Donnie Yen Pulls No Dragon Palms In The New Operatic Wuxia Epic
Sakra opens in select theaters on April 14, and on Digital beginning April 18 from Well Go USA.
And the award for Cinematic Action Hero with The Greatest Odds on Shortest End Of The Stick (not a real award) this month goes to Qiao Fong, the folkloric Song Dynasty warrior and the TBA leader of the Beggar’s Sect in Sakra, the new wuxia martial arts opera starring Donnie Yen. Wong Jing sits in alongside our star to produce the pic while it is Yen, who, though long-credited as sharing the helm with Big Brother shepherd Kam Ka-wai, gets full frontal billing on this return to this chair as director.
Set at a time of turmoil per the work of late literary legend Jin Yong, Sakra begins with the time-honored tale of a baby left in the care of adopted parents and brought up to become a warrior in the beggar’s sect, trained by a monk in the arts of the central plain and imbued with superb skills that make him more formidable than most believe. He’s also of Khitan blood, a fact that is soon brought to the attention of the gang when he is wrongfully accused of murder, and is summarily exiled from the Beggar’s sect before setting out to learn the truth.
This isn’t where the shitshow ends for our hero though, as the bodies stack up twice more in succession before he can find any answers. When a shapeshifter intervenes and is injured during an attack on Fong, the two embark on a journey that will soon find our hero’s life or death search for answers riddled with mystique, romantic intrigue and danger at every turn, as an even greater conspiracy begins to surface ahead of an epic battle with an even deadlier foe to come.
Such is the premise for big-scale wuxia fun led by a star amid his biggest career outing with Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 4. Riding mid-credits into the film on horseback like the gallant westerns of old, Yen is in fine form as the lead character in a story that places him squarely in some of the biggest action set pieces Yen fans will see of late, coupled with worthwhile romance pitting Yen with actress Chen Yuqi as the beautiful and complex Azhu. The cast also comes brimming with several notable additions and appearances including actress Kara Wai and Raging Fire co-star Ray Lui, as well as Yen cohort Yu Kang, and legendary “Yuen Clan” sib, action legend, and character actor Yuen Chung-yan.
While the action and spectacle commence all within the first thirteen minutes, the story deals jauntily with a script that keeps things cut and dry. The accusatory are all indignant about where they stand regardless of the circumstances, leaving Fong to carry the story through and through in all his trials, fighting to save Azhu’s life at one point in a ceremonial toast midway in the film that rules out all safeguards before going toe to toe with the entire beggar’s sect and all its factions. The cherry on top here occurs at the outset when an opportunistic stowaway puts on airs in front of Fong and the rest of Beggar’s Sect only to get the business end of a Jin Yong-inspired FAFO equivalent.
Sakra obliges fans of the lore with a few more reveals and a dose of tragedy to boot for its epic tale of revenge and justice leading up to its main event featuring Yen opposite Ip Man 4: The Finale co-star Wu Yue, who has been a bright spot for me in martial arts cinema fandom for a while now, in addition to actress Cya Liu whose career stride saw her scoring a Best Actress win at the 40th Hong Kong Film Award for her role in Soi Cheang’s crime thriller, Limbo. Here she plays the dual sword-wielding daughter to the emperor of Dali whose own complicated domestic fracas compels her to get even upon learning a grave truth.
Sakra is the kind of film that plays very much to the similar beats of yesteryear wuxia cinema, the kind that entrenched fans would be ardently familiar with if they know well Wong’s filmography. While not as garish, at the end of the day fans of Yen get to see him take center stage at his best and most cinematically superheroic per special effects to underscore his character’s commanding dragon palm technique which he can employ to either lay waste to his enemies or temporary heal them (Dragon Tiger Gate feels run kind of deep here).
It’s also Yen taking the reins for the action alongside stylists Kenji Tanigaki, Yan Hua and Zhang Chao, amassing a grand effort to bring massive action sequences to life, topped with a few sprinkles of gore and lost limbs and dressed with the occasional CG and wire-rigging for the bigger stunts, a few which are still hit-or-miss; there’s a scene where Fong leaps between buildings over a courtyard to confront a monk and the visuals aren’t exactly the most impressive, so do with that what you will. The rest of Sakra for the most part will arrest you with more than two hours of Yen leading the charge for enticing drama, and action and martial arts spectacle that promises fans exactly the kind of hero Yen creates for fans on the big screen. If you’re watching this at home though, make sure your sound system is hooked up accordingly. You’ll thank me later.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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