Iceman: The Time Traveller (Bing feng: Yong heng zhi men)

Hong Kong (2018) Dir. Raymond Yip

You know the deal, a film is successful so a sequel is made and the success continues – at least that is how it is supposed to go. In the case of 2014’s Iceman, the film was a flop but ended in a way that demanded a sequel which was due for release shortly after the first film, so pulling the plug was not an option. But again, that was how it was supposed to go…

Iceman: The Time Traveller was trapped in limbo for four years due to production issues and a social media feud between star Donnie Yen and the film’s producers, the latter accusing Yen of being uncooperative on set, sabotaging the film by making his own edits and refusing to take part in any publicity for it. Yen denies all claims, counter suing the producers for damaging his reputation.

How much of this is true may never be agreed upon, but one thing that is very clear is that this film is as much, if not more of a mess that its predecessor. Picking up directly from the end of Iceman, we see that Ming Dynasty guard He Ming (Yen) is still alive after all in 21st century Hong Kong, before a 10-minute recap of the previous events reminds of why we should rejoice in He Ming’s resurrection.

Not that the story makes any more sense in truncated form but taking up the bulk of the first act with a flashback is not the best use of time, especially for a film that only runs 83 minutes. Anyway, He Ming’s body was pulled from the river and he was brought back to help by corrupt police chief Cheung (Simon Yam), revealed to be part of He Ming’s circle of friend back in the Ming Dynasty days.

For some reason, He Ming decides to trust Cheung and helps him open the Time Wheel, since He Ming has the magic orb is the only one who knows the mantra to open it, so they can return to their rightful time period. He Ming is a bit hesitant since he has fallen for modern girl May (Eva Huang), so Cheung kidnaps May to forced he Ming’s hand, and escapes through time with another time travelling brother Neihu (Yu Kang).

Using his loaf, He Ming uses the orb to open the wheel again, returning him and May back to his own time – after a slight detour to 1927 where they land on a train and beat up some bullying Japanese men because patriotism –  and plots to prevent Cheung from siding with the invading Japanese army and destroying his village.

At least I think that is the plot. Like its predecessor, this film has clearly been edited by someone with a short attention span as it flits liberally from one story arc to another without a care for continuity or coherence. He Ming is actually narrating the story from the present (future?) it would appear which presumably is supposed to act as an anchor for this overall storyline but doesn’t succeed.

Elsewhere too much happens in the bits between these random time skips that make the story even more confusing to follow – for instance, in the final act He Ming and may literally go from one scene dressed as paupers in hiding to wearing fully kitted out soldier uniforms having gained entry into the Forbidden Chambers in the very next scene, with no explanation as to how or why this was achieved.

This can’t be blamed on the time travelling gimmick which only really comes into play at the start and for the messy climax, so unless the stories about Donnie Yen cutting everyone else’s scenes so he remains the prominent star of the film are actually true, there is no genuine explanation for how this was allowed to have been released in such an incoherent and disjointed manner.

But it was and we all have to live with the consequences, especially those involved, but where does the fault lie? We’ve heard the accusations levied against Yen and to be fair, he does appear increasingly disinterested as the film goes on, suggesting maybe he knew this was a turkey all along. Could it be director Raymond Yip, who has a few hits to his name, or writers Fung Lam and Mark Wu, who also wrote for the first film? Arguments could be made for all three to be held culpable but surely other forces must have been at work too?

Whatever they are, the biggest losers are the actors and production team who did their best and the audiences who actually sit through this film expecting some top notch entertainment from a line-up that under other circumstances can deliver in their sleep. In the case of the latter, if one has seen the first films then expectations for this sequel would be low anyway, and judging by the abysmal box office in China and Hong Kong, most people had already given up on it.

I’m sure the four-year wait and multitude of problems and law suits didn’t help matters at all, yet one has to ask if there was so much ill-will surrounding the film itself why didn’t someone try and fix it during this period to at least try to soften the blow when it was released, instead of putting out something so maladroit and clumsy? Perhaps it was an obligation to put the film so those involved could draw a line under it and move on.

Looking at it objectively, Iceman: The Time Traveller is a wasted opportunity given the time travelling premise as hinted in places, and an affront to the top tier cast involved who did their best with such a poor script. Beyond this, it will forever live in infamy as a masterclass in how not to make a big budget fantasy film that even the most ardent of audiences and genre fans won’t tolerate.