The social contract between audience member and auteur is signed on the basis of the of the promise of the title. A title vouches for everything that follows and, boiled to its very essence, the experience of film appreciation is the raw and immediate moment of feeling the joys and disappointments of working out that promise. NB: This is different than film criticism. Film criticism is to film appreciation what conducting an autopsy is to watching ballet.
Given that, consider the promise inherent in the title of Douglas Kung's 2006 genre mash-up soap-fu horror actioner: Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power. Seriously. Read it again. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power.
That's an insane promise. It isn't Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Mediocre Power. It isn't Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Sufficient Power. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Plenty of Power. Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Perfectly Adequate Power.
This is Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power! Shaolin! Evil Dead! Ultimate! Power! You need that many exclamation points just to say the freakin' title right. Here's one more! 'Cause it can take it!
If jaded film criticism had a face, that title would punch it in the nuts.
Of course, as any horror fan knows, the defining characteristic of horror fandom is disappointment. When Sturgeon proposed his law that 90% of creative endeavors are crap, he did warn us that our culture would store all that crap in a single genre.
To nobody's surprise, Shaolin vs. Evil Dead 2: Ultimate Power cannot live up to the promise of the title. It makes a game effort, but what film can support that many exclamation points?
The flick starts off with a well crafted bit of wirework-fu, as a Shaolin student named Dragon and his wife Phoenix take on a crew of raping and pillaging banditti. During the course of the battle the bandit queen - a wonderful, but wasted character, but that's kind of the film's signature move: this flick throws away material that filmmakers of greater sanity and competence could build careers on - strikes Dragon and Phoenix wit a poison tipped sword.
The poison doesn't immediately off either of our heroes, but "uncle" - the elder statesman of the Shaolin temple clan of D & P - warns Dragon that the poison has tainted the growing child in Phoenix's tum-tum. The poison complicates Phoenix's labor and she dies in childbirth. The loss is especially bitter because, just as Phoenix passes away, a young student from a neighboring temple arrives with an elixir which can retard advance of the toxin. Uncle tells Dragon that he must take the elixir in order to give Innocence, the aspirational name given to Dragon and Phoenix's tainted spawn, a moral counterbalance to the toxin in his system. Dragon also ends up adopting the young messenger, Roam Chow.
As Dragon ages into the leader of the clan (characters in this flick experience Peanuts-style aging: they age in spurts, stalling out for a bit at the next dramatically convenient age), he struggles to tame his son's vicious tendencies. Dragon places a young female martial arts student under Innocence's supervision, hoping to inspire some sense of responsibility and honor within him. But, Innocence is one of those primally savage creatures: Like Grendel and happiness, civility seems to pain Innocence. It's at those moments one realizes that the character's name is not ironic.
It becomes clear to Dragon that Innocence is a jerk. Convinced that Innocence's cruelty makes him an unsuitable leader, Dragon chooses his adopted son as the next leader of the clan. This goes over like a tub of warm vomit with Innocence, who promptly flees the temple with a stolen magic sword. The rest of the movie tracks the parallel lives of Roam Chow and Innocence as they head to their inevitable collision.
Sadly, it's that collision that is the film's Achilles heel. The first two-thirds of the flick recall the dense, operatic story-telling of classic epic martial arts action filmmaking. That the film captures that sense is all the more noteworthy given the film's technical limitations: Shot in dim digital video and marred with subpar CGI, the film's sweeping scope is achieved in the face of truly mediocre visuals. However, by the end, the plot goes from cleverly tangled to baggy. Even under the more relaxed rules of martial arts cinema, the film introduces inexplicable complications and resolutions and becomes a mess of unnecessary starts and stops that kills forward momentum and sorely tries viewer patience. This confused jumble even overwhelms director Douglas who, painted into a corner, ends his flick with a sudden, out-of-nowhere villain-offing meteor strike. Seriously. It's like they ran out of paper for the screenplay and decided to type on the final line: "Exit all, hit by meteor."
To make things worse, the whole "versus the evil dead" bit of the promise is buried in the last third of the flick. As part of the third act pile on, an army of leaping vampires is thrown into the mix.
Lest I make this sound like a candidate for psychotronicness, SvED2UP (pronounced "saved 2 up") is not some raw explosion of cinematic craziness. The film drags through what should be a mind-blowing climax. That the final act is sloppy is, perhaps, excusable. That it is oddly boring is less so.