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Tsui Hark doesn’t do anything by half measures, so Time and Tide has more visual motifs than a whole season of Hollywood movies. One of them is the sudden ignition of a cigarette lighter: It’s an emblem of cool, a controlled explosion, a beacon from Asia’s cinematic city of (neon) light. Whether such images are big or small, actual or metaphoric, straight-on or refracted in a series of mirrors, every frame in this film is designed to dazzle.

Time and Tide is Hark’s first Hong Kong film in five years, made after he returned from Hollywood, where he directed two intermittently entertaining Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, Double Team and Knock Off. (Actually, the producer-director couldn’t resist shooting the latter in Hong Kong, complete with a 1997-handover subtext.) It may well be his most assured, best sustained movie ever, although it doesn’t qualify as his most likable. (That remains 1986’s Peking Opera Blues, the first Hark romp to crash the film-festival circuit). Time and Tide lacks heart, although it has so much flash that you might not catch your breath long enough to notice.

The story opens in the Hong Kong that Wong Kar-wai seems to have abandoned, one populated by melancholy tough guys and eccentric beauties, who are often impersonated by pop stars recruited more for their baby-faced looks than their acting chops. First up is Tyler (Cantopop singer Nicholas Tse), a bartender who—in the movie’s first five minutes—has a drunken fling with lesbian cop Jo (model Cathy Chui), who turns up pregnant nine months later. When Tyler muses about moving to a carefree Latin American country, the film switches to that land, where mercenary commando Jack (Taiwanese rocker Wu Bai) is in the midst of a shootout. That Tyler and Jack are contrapuntal characters is about all you need to know—and about all that Hark and co-scripter Koan Hui seem to have determined—of the movie’s frenzied, frequently indecipherable plot.

To raise money for Jo—who shows no interest in Tyler’s assistance—the bartender takes a job with a bodyguard agency run by Uncle Ji (Anthony Wong, in a role much like the one he’s played in several Johnny To films). The novice tough guy soon finds himself protecting gangster boss Thomas Hong, who has disowned his daughter, Hui (singer Candy Lo), for marrying Jack, who’s now back in Hong Kong. Hui is pregnant, too, which not only adds to the parallels between Tyler and Jack—in Time and Tide II, they’ll probably end up defending their kids’ day-care center together—but also adds to Jack’s sense of urgency when his old Latin American colleagues come to town and start threatening him and Hui.

The action spins through various hotels and apartment towers, a slaughterhouse, a railway station, and an arena where a rock concert just happens to be under way. (When Jack juggles grenades in the rafters, the kids think it’s part of the show and applaud.) Tyler is left to watch over Hui, who of course goes into labor while the Latin thugs close in. As Tyler delivers the baby, he hands his gun to Hui so she can protect them. (Hark and Christopher McQuarrie apparently devised this life-and-death gag around the same time; Time and Tide opened in Hong Kong last fall as McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun, which has a similar scene, opened in the United States.)

Amid the mayhem, Hark spoofs both of his rivals for the title of Hong Kong’s best-known director. The deliriously chic opening scenes recall Wong’s Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, and Tyler’s South American reverie is apparently a riff on that director’s Argentine excursion, Happy Together. Later, Hark turns to his former associate John Woo, having some perverse fun with Woo’s trademark doves—here clearly revealed as tenement pigeons—and upping the ante on the ending of Hard Boiled (in which Chow Yun-Fat rescues an infant) by having the hero actually deliver a baby. Such parody is easily integrated into the film, because Hark’s style is inherently comic. When he sends the camera scurrying through hallways, zooming through ice buckets and clothes dryers, and rushing down walls, the effect is thrilling but also droll. Hark never pretends to capture the intensity of actual experience. His speciality is showing things that could never be shown—indeed, could never happen—which makes them as absurd as they are electrifying.

Hark has often been called Hong Kong’s Steven Spielberg, and both are technocrats with only a little bit of soul. Asked last year what he thought of the comparison, Hark joked, “That’s unfair to him, I think. It’s unfair to me, too—he’s so rich.” Hark could certainly benefit from Hollywood special-effects budgets. Earlier Hark films such as Green Snake sputter at those moments when the FX should dazzle; even Time and Tide, which mostly finesses any technical limitations with sheer bravura, looks feeble when it tries to digitally simulate a burning building. The two thrill-ride technicians have less in common today than they did in the ’80s, when each was building his empire: Hark lacks Spielberg’s sentimentality, as well as his late-blooming social conscience.

Although its essence is pure pulp, Time and Tide unexpectedly recalls the playfully obtrusive storytelling styles of such art-film masters as Alain Resnais (especially Providence) and Nicolas Roeg (Bad Timing, say). The film opens with a hard-boiled retelling of Genesis’ creation fable, delivered in voice-over to ironic visual accompaniment and plainly heralding Hark as the lord of all he surveys. The director has never so shamelessly asserted his godlike power to depict anything he can imagine. What could limit such a demiurge’s vision? If your answer is “verisimilitude,” Hark has a blunt response: “Watch this.”

At the beginning of A Knight’s Tale, there’s no knight available. Inconveniently, Sir Ulrich has just died, inspiring his squire, William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), to ride in his place. As the counterfeit Ulrich approaches the jousting grounds, the crowd takes up a familiar stomp-along beat. Yes, it’s Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

That moment will make costume-drama purists weep, but it’s a conceptual masterstroke. Where such would-be medieval movies as Ever After and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves kept tripping over their period miscues, A Knight’s Tale immediately announces that it just doesn’t care. This ain’t The Lion in Winter; it’s more like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Only A Knight’s Tale comes not to burn down the high school but to sanctify it for the (middle) ages.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote the screenplay for L.A. Confidential and directed and co-wrote Payback, provides his latest film with lots of swagger and a fair bit of humor. William’s quest to become a tournament champion—which as a commoner he can never be—and his impossible love for Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) are utterly predictable and fairly dull. But Helgeland gives William an amusing posse, including fellow squires Roland (The Full Monty’s Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser), and Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), portrayed as a poet, forger, gambling addict, and toastmaster supreme. This overlong movie is energized by Chaucer’s gags, a ’70s rock score, and a parade of brazen anachronisms. (Kate apparently discovers aluminum, and Jocelyn—who seems to get her copies of Vogue about eight centuries in advance—shows up at one tournament in a see-through blouse.)

The problem with these audacious gambits is that they serve not to undermine the clichés of the medieval epic but to uphold the banalities of another genre: the high school movie. William is simply the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with the supposedly unattainable cheerleader, battles the arrogant rich kid—in this case, jousting champion Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell)—and then transforms his place in society by winning the big game. The film seems to take this form not as a comment on human continuity but because Helgeland figures his audience won’t understand anything else. “History is bunk,” one of the architects of contemporary America supposedly said, and A Knight’s Tale crowd-pleasingly agrees. It doesn’t just feign that today’s world of professional sports, rock ‘n’ roll, and gender-role gags—and, if you wait long enough, fart jokes—is the way things were; it suggests that any other mode of existence is unimaginable. CP