In person: star Donnie Yen!
There’s a shrine to General Guan in almost every Chinese police station—and almost every gangster headquarters. In the cop shrines, he holds his guan do (a spear named after him) in his right hand. In triad shrines, he holds it in his left. If both cops and criminals are worshipping the same person, he must be a real badass, and that’s why Donnie Yen plays General Guan in this biopic.
The politics are complicated, so hang in there. When the movie begins, we’re a few years before the epic Battle of Red Cliff, still in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history when the Han Dynasty was crumbling and the Wei, Shu, and Wu kingdoms were about to fight to the death over its corpse. General Guan is loyal to Liu Bei of the Shu Kingdom, but he’s captured by Cao Cao (chancellor to the Han Emperor) during battle and that’s where our movie begins. Cao Cao is one of the most despised figures in Chinese history and he’d go on to get his butt handed to him at the Battle of Red Cliff. Here he’s played by Jiang Wen (star and director of Let the Bullets Fly) as a master manipulator, eager to turn General Guan into his pawn. But Guan is too righteous, and when he hears that his blood brother and lord, Liu Bei, is still alive, Cao Cao lets him go in a rare act of compassion. This infuriates Cao Cao’s generals who instruct everyone they know to kill General Guan on his journey home, leading to the episode that makes up the bulk of this movie, known in Chinese literature as either “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” or “Crossing Five Passes and Slaying Six Generals.” Which is exactly what happens.
Donnie Yen has to cross five passes and kick six asses, and he does it with the aid of his mighty guan do, chopping off heads, slicing off arms, and reducing bodies to twitching lumps of meat. Taking place in an Imperial China where even sworn enemies can discuss their differences over a relaxing cup of tea, before coming at each other with swords and crossbows, this is a martial epic as grand, glorious, and outrageous as the legend of General Guan itself.