Awoken after centuries inside a cryogenic chamber Ming Dynasty warrior He Ying (Donnie Yen) finds himself in neon-lit, modern Hong Kong. Stumbling through the bustling nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong, He Ying dazzles trendy young things with his supernatural kung fu skills and eventually finds a friend in sassy call girl May (Eva Huang Sheng-Yi). On learning that centuries ago He Ying was framed for murder and conspiring with Japanese pirates, May agrees to help him return to the past to clear his name by locating the Golden Wheel of Time, a mystical time travel device activated by the crystallized penis (?!) of the Hindu God Shiva. What they don't know is that two of He Ying's fellow cryo-frozen Ming Dynasty warriors are on the loose and out to hunt and kill their fallen comrade. Tracking all three parties is the enigmatic Assistant Police Commissioner (Simon Yam) with his own interest in eliminating He Ying.
Taking their lead from Hollywood the Hong Kong film industry have lately remade a number of classics from the Eighties as flashy, bombastic, CGI laden spectacles. Now in the wake of A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) among others comes Iceman 3D, a big-budget reboot of the charming time travel fantasy action rom-com Iceman Cometh (1989) replacing Yuen Biao with the ubiquitous Donnie Yen. Following in the footsteps of another remake, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), the new version comes with 3D bells-and-whistles presenting CGI renditions of internal organs, the inside of a revving engine or more strikingly an animated shadow puppet version of an ancient Hindu myth with graphics that float toward the viewer.
Of course the 3D sequences prove less impressive on the small screen. Martial arts purists were infuriated by the CGI-enhanced action sequences though, their gripes aside, the fantastical action, stunt-work and special effects are undeniably spectacular. In particular the extended climax on the bridge with He Ying on horseback playing chicken with a speeding Porsche while May tries to save a bunch of screaming passengers trapped inside a burning bus. Pleasingly for a slick contemporary blockbuster the film retains traces of old school Hong Kong eccentricity and scatological nonsense as when He Ying takes a supersonic dump in a toilet as his exploding faeces (!) take out an entire police SWAT team! As was the case in The Monkey King (2014), Donnie Yen continues to evolve beyond his stock screen persona and spoofs his stoic image. However, unlike Yuen Biao's He Ying, Yen's take on the character is never once at a loss, always in control. He has less trouble adapting to the modern world and no difficulty winning over May, a heroine drastically sanitized away from the brassy, self-serving hooker played by Maggie Cheung in the original. Lovely Eva Huang looks fine in hot-pants and has more to do than Cheung yet leaves a less vivid impression. So whereas Yuen Biao was a fish out of water, Donnie Yen is an unflappable superhero. Consequently the film lacks tension and resorts to increasingly contrived measures, pop culture in-jokes including allusions to Back to the Future (1985) and The Terminator (1984), and surprise celebrity cameos to keep going.
Where Iceman 3D stumbles is in substituting spectacle for sense. While a dab hand with an action scene, Law Wing Cheong's storytelling is a mess. The original told a fairly linear story opening in the past before transplanting He Ying to the present day. Aside from tripling the villain count (Simon Yam's character seems to have strayed from a Johnnie To triad thriller) the remake jumbles the past and the present in a confusing mishmash of flashbacks and flash-forwards that remain frustratingly unresolved come the nonsensical, sequel-baiting finale. Even taking all this into account, that the plot should prove so confusing is less problematic than the film's rampant xenophobia cloaked in fervent nationalism. The villains are aided by an all-Indian street gang, May is harassed by drunken British businessmen and works for a call girl ring run by an Australian woman whom He Ying blithely dubs a "foreign pig." It is no secret mainland Chinese censors have strong input in Hong Kong film scripts these days. As a result the film goes out of its way to paint Hong Kong citizens as corrupt, venal, self-serving and intolerant (He Ying remarks "people here are so corrupt, they ought to be drowned to death"). Conversely it has the gall to complain about prejudice towards Mainland Chinese as when May gripes that Cantonese locals hate hear speaking Mandarin or when one villain rants about Mainland businessmen invading their turf. What ought to be a fanciful, fun fantasy adventure leaves a rather sour aftertaste.