2012’s Judge Archer is the second film from Chinese novelist/screenwriter/director Haofeng Xu, the co-writer of The Grandmaster (2013) and the writer/director of the divisively received The Sword Identity (2011). If there was ever a film that demanded a wide range of supplemental material to be included with the home video release, it is Judge Archer. Unfortunately, we get none whatsoever.
I haven’t seen The Sword Identity, but some of the basic criticisms in the reviews I’ve read are that the film is overly academic in nature with a narrative that lacks a clear through-line. The characters are difficult to connect with due to a lack of exposition or attention to internal development. On the other hand, the film is described as beautifully shot, with a stunning attention to detail and a fundamentally realistic approach to the martial arts action.
And you can pretty much just port over those reviews to Judge Archer; just change the name of the film.
Set in the early Republic of China (1912-49), the film serves as an exploration of the end of martial arts era and the dawn of a new age of guns and cynicism. The titular character, Judge Archer (Yang Song) has assumed the name and role of Judge Archer after losing his mind to rage when his sister was raped by a local landlord. Essentially, Judge Archer is a (fictional) title handed down from person to person and his role is to play arbitrator of disputes between martial arts schools. For reasons not entirely explained or obvious, he is hired by Erdong (Yenny Martin) to avenge the murder of her revolutionary father by the warlord General Yang – a job that is not in his wheelhouse at all.
From there, Judge Archer’s motivations and purity of mission begin to waver as he falls in love with Yue Yahong (Chengyuan Li) and doubts the point of the inevitable conflict with Yang’s bodyguard, Master Kuang Yimin (Cheng-Hui Yu).
Fans of westerns that explore the end of the “Wild West” and the encroaching of civilization will find a lot to enjoy here, as well. Although it might be a little hard to pick out the theme until the very end. Ultimately, a lot of the narrative enjoyment in this film is going to be reliant on one’s own knowledge about the time period (thus my comment above about supplemental materials). Instead of providing viewers with a context, we are instead thrust into the story with little to no explanation of the setting, and the story itself does very little to elaborate on any of the actual conflicts Judge Archer gets himself involved with. All we know is that various martial arts schools are periodically fighting with each other for unexplained reasons and Judge Archer magically arrives to negotiate peace. Or kick everyone’s ass in one scene that is exciting, funny, and totally unexplained by either the characters or the filmmaking.
In fact, the only element of the film that Xu seems to be interested in is the realistic martial arts and the beautiful costuming and set design, all of which are stunning. Whether the action takes place in temples, bars, in nature, or breathtaking natural settings, it is impeccably shot.
Xu has no interest in embracing the clichés of many other Chinese action films. There is no wire work or supernatural abilities. Many of the fights are done in close-up, with the combatants actually seated within inches of each other, which despite how it sounds, does not undermine the tension or enjoyment of the action. We also get spear fighting and a little bit of archery as the story unfolds, and Xu – who also served as action choreographer – emphasizes the grace and dynamic power of real martial arts combat.
Ultimately, whether or not you’re going to enjoy this film depends on both how much you already know about the early Republic (or how much research you put in beforehand) and if you are more interested in realistic martial arts and beautiful cinematography over story and character development. Judge Archer is being released only on bare-bones DVD, so you may be better served streaming or waiting for the hopefully inevitable import Blu-ray (which has not been announced as of yet, to my knowledge).