Based on the popular console game of the same name this computer animated sword and sorcery yarn centres on Nariko (voiced by Anna Torv, star of cult TV show Fringe, reprising her role from the 2007 game), a nomadic warrior woman duty-bound to bear the Heavenly Sword until her father, the King, can pass it on to its rightful heir. To that end, with their clan terrorized by an evil army, Nariko and her half-sister Kai (Ashleigh Ball) set off on a perilous journey to unite the magic blade with the true heir, their long-lost half-brother Loki (Thomas Jane), before maniacal King Bohan (Alfred Molina) destroys them all.
Computer animated adaptations of console games never turn out well, no matter how groundbreaking their visuals. Just ask the makers of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Wisely, the team behind Heavenly Sword evidently went out of their way to avoid alienating the game's core fan-base. Unlike the high-profile flop Final Fantasy, this feature film is recognizably an extension of the game: an odd mishmash of Chinese wu xia pian, Japanese myth and Robert E. Howard novels. However, by comparison, on a narrative level, it is far less ambitious. Strangely while narratives within games themselves have grown more sophisticated, film adaptations remain bogged down in basic hack-and-slash action.
Penned by actor and screenwriter Todd Farmer, whose work includes the enjoyable Nicolas Cage vehicle Drive Angry (2011), slasher fare Jason X (2001) and My Bloody Valentine (2009) and the Pang Brothers' failed crack at the American market The Messengers (2007), the script falls on the hackneyed "chosen one" concept but does have an interesting psychological dimension with Nariko burdened by the weight of failure. The King, who spent a lifetime trying to sire the male destined to save his kingdom (taking women by force in a plot detail that renders him wildly unsympathetic), has nothing but disdain for his daughter even though she is obviously a badass. In fact his constant berating, misogyny and assumption Nariko will fail at everything grows rather tiresome.
Nevertheless it is refreshing to have two heroines on a quest rather than the more familiar Conan or Frodo stand-in. Although Nariko and Kai never transcend their archetypes of stoic Amazon and feisty waif their relationship is fairly well drawn right down to the disarmingly poetic finale. Pouty, flame-haired Red Sonja-alike Nariko has a certain Frank Frazetta-ish warrior babe appeal but the film lacks the sexy strangeness one associates with the more memorable sword and sorcery films. In a fairly amusing misdirect the film flirts with disappointing female viewers invested in Nariko (if there are any?) with the introduction of a conventional male hero in affable Loki until what one assumes is an intentionally hilarious plot twist. It so abrupt even Nariko barely reacts before moving on to the next fight scene. Unlike the computer generation action in Kung Fu Panda (2008) or How to Train Your Dragon (2010) the fight scenes here look like something out of a computer game. Debuting director Gun Ho Jang pulls off a fair few visceral swordplay set-pieces, notably the final battle with Nariko whirling through the massed ranks of Bohan's legions like a one-woman army. Even so the typically inexpressive CG faces prevent real emotional involvement so viewers may find themselves subconsciously reaching for a non-existent control pad.