Heavenly Sword (2014)

Rating: **
Review Date: 9/14/14
Cast: Anna Torv, Alfred Molina, Nolan North, Thomas Jane

"Don't tell anyone, but Kai likes to make blood."

Based on the PlayStation 3 video game that came out in 2007, "Heavenly Sword" tells the tale of a young woman named Nariko (Anna Torv) whose clan has been charged with protecting a powerful and deadly relic known as the Heavenly Sword. When power monger King Bohan (Alfred Molina) comes to claim the sword by force, Nariko takes it and flees the city. Unfortunately, the sword is cursed, and while it contains incredible power, it also claims the life of whoever wields it. Nariko is eventually forced to use the blade, and sacrifices her life to defeat the Raven Lord and save her people.

Unfortunately, the film suffers the same fate as the game in that it's tedious and frustrating. Nariko is a wonderful character and Anna Torv embodies her with a superbly fierce and forceful performance, but everything else falls flat on its face. Alfred Molina's portrayal of Bohan is adequate and considerably more low-key than Andy Serkis's original performance, but still comes off as overly goofy. Kai's performance is also a bit over the top and bears an uncomfortable likeness to Gollum from "Lord Of The Rings." Much like the game, all of the characters apart from Nariko are annoying and embarrassing.

The film uses the same assets that were developed for the game, and looks only marginally better than the original cutscenes. The animation is good, but it's certainly not state of the art and it suffers from obvious budgetary constraints. There are also about a half dozen scenes where Bohan's scar appears on the wrong side of his face, which is very aggravating. How did no one notice this? And it's not like the character model changed. They must have purposely flipped the shots in post for editing reasons, but I can't imagine it being that costly to just re-render them. And not surprisingly, the dialog isn't lip-synced very well. Another disappointment is the dull and bland musical score, which actually detracts from the action.

Where the film excels is in the action scenes, and watching Nariko fight is extremely enjoyable. The motion capture is quite good, and Nariko's movements are powerful, fluid, graceful, and realistic. Unfortunately, the action scenes are marred by needlessly jerky slow motion, and the complete lack of blood and mutilated body parts is unsettling. The Heavenly Sword has the tendency to pass right through bodies without inflicting any physical damage, which is a constant distraction and actually looks like flawed collision detection. Since the project was originally pitched as a television movie, the action scenes probably had to be sanitized in order to pass various censor boards, but the results are visually annoying.

However, the most frustrating and disappointing aspect of the film is how it deviates from the original story, by adding new characters and completely changing Kai's background. The narrative changes are pointless and confusing, and only succeed in derailing the action with a series of mental hurdles. It also introduces more male chauvinism to the plot, and undermines Nariko's character. Which brings us back to the age old question of why video game adaptations all seem to fall victim to screen writers' wrath. What was wrong with the original story? If you're making a movie for the fans of the game, then what possible reason is there for changing and rearranging the details? It doesn't improve the narrative or the overall experience, and only invites criticism. And for a film that goes to such lengths to recreate the look and feel of the game, the changes seem even more glaring and unnecessary. If anything, they should have reworked the awful dialog and goofy caricatures instead of the story.