Agent Dragon 9 (Nick Cheung), a fast-talking, gadget-wielding, kung fu kicking secret agent working for the Imperial government, lands in trouble on the trail of a notorious bandit known as the Ghost Thief (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung). Luckily his best friend, master swordsman Snow the God of Sword (Ekin Cheng) flies in to bail him out with his legendary sword skills. During the fight, the despicable Ghost Thief sacrifices three of his beautiful sword maidens trying to save his own skin, but Snow rescues the fourth girl, Ye Ziqing (Kirsty Yeung), who happens to be in love with him. They settle down in married bliss.
Meanwhile, Agent 9 and his feisty childhood friend, Princess Phoenix (Vicky Zhao Wei), who happens to be the Emperor’s kid sister, find themselves in an awkward position when Sword Saint Yip Ku-Sing (Andy Lau), a powerful sword master he greatly respects and whom she loves, challenges Snow to a duel. News of this battle between legendary combatants perks the interest of the Emperor (Patrick Tam), who invites them to stage their duel in the Forbidden City and tasks Agent 9 to sell tickets. For his part, Agent 9 wonders why a righteous man like Sword Saint bears a grudge against his good friend Snow. Together with Princess Phoenix, he uncovers the tangled conspiracy that pits these righteous heroes against each other and threatens the heart of the empire.
Having scored big box office with Storm Riders (1998) and A Man Called Hero (1999), the hit-making team of writer-producer Wong Jing and director-cinematographer Andrew Lau reunited for another effects laden extravaganza with The Duel. This time, rather than adapt another “manhua” (Hong Kong comic book), the duo decided to rework a classic Gu Long wu xia novel, previously adapted for the screen as The Duel of the Century (1981) by Shaw Brothers maestro Chu Yuan. However, the film’s tone is wildly removed from both the chivalric stoicism of the Shaw Brothers output and the bombast of earlier Wong Jing/Andrew Lau hits. Leads Andy Lau and Ekin Cheng play it straight as the stern superheroes, but the film is actually driven by the zany antics of former Hong Kong policeman-turned-actor-comedian Nick Cheung and an adorable Vicky Zhao Wei, one year away from being shot to superstardom with Shaolin Soccer (2001). It is an irreverent semi-spoof wherein our bickering sleuths trade bawdy jokes, wield ridiculous gadgets (look out for the umbrella with forty-nine deadly functions), indulge in anachronistic movie references, and repeatedly break the fourth wall to address the audience.
Surprisingly paired with engagingly human characters and detailed relationships, the scattershot result works remarkably well, considerably more so than the overblown melodramatics of (the admittedly much-loved) Storm Riders. Andrew Lau’s stately pace sometimes seems at odds with Wong Jing’s anything goes ethos, which encompasses his trademark scatalogical humour and those frenetic gambling scenes found in everything from his critically-respected God of Gamblers (1989) right back to his Shaw Brothers debut, Challenge of the Gamesters (1982). Consequently, the energy flags now and then despite committed performances from funnyman Cheung, an alternately amusing and affecting Zhao Wei, and a supporting cast that includes cult character actor Elvis Tsui as a triad boss and Taiwanese sex bomb Tin Sum as Agent 9’s sultry girlfriend.
Nevertheless, the complex narrative juggles multiple plot-lines, tangled relationships, star-crossed love affairs and even a murder investigation with real panache, and touches on familiar Gu Long themes: duality, chivalry, the hardship of living by the sword, secret conspiracies. Also the denouement comes as a genuine and tragic surprise. The CGI-enhanced fight scenes choreographed by the great Ching Siu-Tung crackle with insane slapstick verve with some wildly imaginative flourishes (e.g. Sword Saint first appears in the sky in the form of a spectacular multi-headed dragon; Shaw Brothers veteran Norman Tsui Siu-Keung transforms into a giant sword-wielding snowball!). The production design and art direction are equally eye-catching as the film was shot in the real Forbidden City.
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.