Donnie Yen is one of the most prolific actors in Chinese cinema. Though modern American audiences are most familiar with Yen from his performance as Chirrut Îmwe in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Yen’s been working in films since 1984. He starred in 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II, alongside Jet Li; 2002’s Blade II, with Ron Perlman and Wesley Snipes, and Hero, once more with Li; 2008’s Ip Man, with Simon Yam; and 2011’s Dragon, with Takeshi Kaneshiro – just to name a few of his films you should put on your radar. In 2014, Yen joined the Law Wing-Cheong-directed wu xia action comedy Iceman where he played General Ho Ying, a member of the emperor’s army from the Ming Dynasty who wakes in the present day after being frozen in ice for 400 years. Though sometimes a touch strange due to the blending of various genres, Iceman is an entertaining romp featuring great stunts, goofy humor, absurd scifi, and enough drama to keep things interesting. The Raymond Yip-directed sequel Iceman: The Time Traveler continues Ying’s quest to return to the past, playing fast-and-loose with everything Iceman established and removing most of the humor for more serious drama.
General Ho Ying is a man outside of time. Once a trusted member of the emperor’s army, Ying was branded a traitor and his entire village was decimated as a result. During his attempted capture, an avalanche buried Ying and fellow brothers-in-arms Sao (Wang Bao Qiang), Niehu (Yu Kang), and Yuan Long (Simon Yam), freezing them for 400 years. Awakened in the present, the four men seek nothing more than to return to their home using the fabled Golden Wheel of Time. Ying is the only one entrusted with both the key and the enchantment to activate the wheel and these warriors must band together to get home. However, Ying’s blind desire to get home unwittingly places him right in the center of a trap more dangerous than the execution he faced before he was frozen.
The mythos of the Iceman series is a touch complicated to briefly summarize without skipping over details. As though recognizing this, the film begins with a 10-minute voiceover in an attempt to get the audience up to speed, in case they missed the first film. Rather than hit the ground running, the extended introduction offers a chance to hit the highlights of characters and motivations so as not to lose the audience before the film really gets moving. This also provides an opportunity for Yip’s sequel to manipulate the overall story to fit the needs of the new film. Interestingly, this means that Time Traveler doubles down on virtually everything that the first film establishes and successfully moves the story forward. Additionally, where Iceman possesses elements of a mystery as the audience observes Ying not only navigating the real world while trying to figure out how to get home, the audience also tries to understand why police officer Cheung (revealed last to be Long incognito) is hard-pressed to find The Golden Wheel and Ying. Time Traveler removes any sense of mystery, focusing instead on delivering multiple action sequences and heartfelt drama, most of which it does successfully. Unfortunately, this is where the problems start, as Time Traveler removes almost all of the things that made Iceman an engaging watch, retconning virtually the whole experience, and throwing out every rule about time travel ever used in broadcasting. It’s so drastic that it’s as if Time Traveler was created by completely different writers (it’s not – original writers Fung Lam and Mark Wu returned), when it’s more likely that they felt trapped in a corner by the rules they’d already established. What remains is an action drama whose sole purpose seems to be to create the opportunity for a third film.
In order to create stakes in the first film and enhance the mystery elements, Iceman is organized as a non-liner story, giving out details to the audience as Ying remembers them. This is how the audience learns the rule of The Golden Wheel of Time (it can only be used three times before it destroys itself and it’s been used twice already) and that Seo, Niehu, Long, and Ying are not only brothers-in-arms now but were inseparable as children. Finding these things out in pieces in Iceman adds gravitas to every interaction and infuses the fights with drama beyond life-and-death. In contrast, Time Traveler has its characters utilize The Golden Wheel over and again as if it possesses infinite power and has no rules. This reduces the quite fantastical Iceman series to something sillier and more ridiculous. On the one hand, the changing of rules does allow for Ying and his accidental traveling companion May (Kung Fu Hustle’s Eva Huang) to journey to 1927 China and assist in the theft of the Tanaka Report, which makes for an entertaining fight scene that provides May the opportunity to demonstrate her own fighting skills, which are not explored in Iceman. This also lets the movie tap into the history of China. The repeated use of time travel enables Time Traveler to posit about the pitfalls of trying to master time versus trying to merely be present, a philosophical edge the original lacked. On the other hand, the changing of the rules removes the tension established in the first film. If The Golden Wheel can only be used once, then the race to get to it first in Iceman provides a constant clock to the proceedings. Removing that element, what’s left is merely a matter of holding onto the key, something that the combat-adept Ying does with ease. This means that Time Traveler must create tension via a love story involving May, Ying, and Ying’s betrothal to another woman. The film could easily mine the brother-vs-brother relationship for tension and, when it does, audiences can really see the pain within Ying, which may be more of a testament to Yen’s ability to make even bad ideas look incredible. But let’s be honest for a moment. Most audiences just want to see Yen throwdown and Time Traveler gives you exactly that. There are wire-fights in a cave, in a village, inside the emperor’s treasury, in a temporal wasteland, on a train, and on a train tearing down a track running through time itself − all of which makes perfect sense given the set-up of this cinematic universe. Despite this, aspects still feel like strange given the mostly grounded rules of Iceman.
As its own entity, Iceman: The Time Traveler is a strange, yet fun science-fiction action drama. Yen grounds the entire film by his mere presence, somehow ensuring that even at its most absurd, Time Traveler remains a film about people, not spectacle. Similarly, the majority of supporting characters are each given full arcs so that Seo, Niehu, and Long move past the minimal antagonistic roles of the original film. Only Huang’s May is reduced, positioned as merely a possible love interest and motivator for Ying, which is a step-back from her characterization from Iceman. There still remains the problem that Time Traveler isn’t its own film. By all means, a sequel should expand upon the world the first establishes and even smooth over some of the rougher edges, but what Time Traveler does feels stranger, more foreign. In ignoring specific established rules and plot developments Time Traveler makes itself stronger as a singular experience while simultaneously becoming reductive. Even a great Donnie Yen performance can’t distract from that.
No bonus features included in the home release.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital February 19th, 2019.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.