Warriors of Heaven and Earth Review
Eastern promise dovetails into Western farce in He Ping's continent-dislocated horse-opera, Warriors Of Heaven And Earth, a disappinting entry in the historical swordplay genre.
John Ford's idealistic and noble vogue gets assimilated by Akiro Kurosawa, who trades cowboys for samurai, and then Kurosawa's class is customised by Sergio Leone, who strips away the moral code and lays the West's psychological extremes as open as a scalped noggin. Tried and trusted, their films are exactly the same movie landmarks, just viewed from globally and culturally disparate angles. He Ping obviously loves the heroic tradition of indomitable men doing the “right” thing in a savage wilderness, and this is certainly what has inspired him to make this film, though he clearly misses the fact that his progenitors favoured the anti-heroic a lot more. Twisted motivations have no place in his derivative story of hard men battling against the odds.
The plot is simple and as by-the-numbers as a thousand other stagecoach-crusades. Swap Monument Valley for the Gobi Desert, disgruntled civil war veterans for dishonoured soldiers who have turned their backs on the Emperor, the quintessentially embittered bounty hunter for a stoic Japanese warrior unleashed to track down these rebels and the trail of wagon-drawn immigrant dream-seekers for a monk secreted amongst a camel-train, and you have a frontier as wild and lawless as the ones that Wayne and Eastwood frequently roved. After refusing to execute Turkish prisoners, including women and children, Lt. Li (Jiang Wen) turns fugitive and, along with some of his men, heads off to guard the camel trains snaking through the perilous western deserts along the route of the famed Silk Road. But an affronted Emperor wants his head and sets Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi), a master swordsman, after him. 8th Century Tang Dynasty has remote outposts stretched along the fringes of its furthest province, but these are just ramshackle border towns and corrupt forts, the exact environment that Leone would mytholigise. Whenever Li or Xi enter such a locale, you expect to hear the jangle of their spurs.
With the rampaging Turk hordes storming across the horizon and outlaw bands nestled away in the eerie caves and rocky passes like Tusken Raiders, the scene is set for a dangerous journey that sees the two nemesis having to forge a bond in order, not only to escort the valuable monk out of harm's way, but to survive long enough to have their honourable duel once the job is done. The setting of the Gobi Desert is wonderfully striking, an orange-hued landscape that compounds the isolation of the protagonists by placing them at meager outposts, camps and frontier fortresses dwarfed by rolling plains and endless horizons. Yet this epic visual tableaux is let down by what is, ultimately, a rather small and strangely bland story that is only partly fleshed out by stock characters who generate no internal logic and elicit little compassion. The bulldog-faced Li looks ridiculous in his armour and squat little helmet and, if you watch, his ears actually wiggle from time to time, adding to his less-then-heroic swagger. The bunch of clichéd hangers-on who make up his motley band of comrades don't fare much better, either. They kept on reminding me the Time Bandits - albeit larger versions, obviously - because of the weird clothing and armour they wear. Even their names - Baldy, Old Die Hard, Ma Gun, One Eye - are visual monikers that bring to mind grizzled old cowpokes from a John Ford Western more so than a Dynastic quest. It could be argued that the comedic angle of Li's crew is possibly meant to be a throwback to earlier Asian historical pieces such as Come Drink With Me, or even the likes of Kurosawa's classics, but here it does nothing to ingratiate these goons. Besides, it is patently obvious that He Ping is probably more inclined to be emulating the gurning, hangdog, stress-relieving scene-stealers like Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan from Ford's estimable canon. Everyone has characterisation of the thumbnail variety and zero development, and no amount of revelation along the way - brothers bonding, differences cast to the desert wind and honour repeatedly called to bear - gains any viewer response other than indifference. The screenplay, written by He Ping and Zhang Rui, is a hack job that carelessly pitches in too many quips and supposedly clever one-liners, leading to the whole enterprise coming over as somewhat confused as to what type of yarn it actually wants to be. Moments of brevity in this genre are taken for granted but they just don't seem to work here. And installing modern-day banter and retorts along the lines of “You're busting my balls!” is just too anachronistic to help cajole a flabby and contrived screenplay.
Of course, Ping is too much in awe of his idols to avoid striving to create his Western. Two mortal enemies who must set aside their differences to protect what amounts to a wagon train from roving bandits and a frontier town run by a Sergio Leone-inspired gangleader conjure up everything from The Undefeated to Silvarado. The dust-choked deserts, a grand mounted chase through a canyon and gallant last stand at a stranded fort in the badlands are all staple components of any horse opera worth its oats. But, just when you think the cavalry are going to come to the rescue, Ping winds up his tall tale with a typically Asian curveball. I won't explain this rogue element any further, sufficed to say that it completely detracts from all that has gone before and involves some pretty, but unconvincing, visual effects.
Other than a plot that doesn't really entice due to a severe lack of empathy with the main characters, Warriors is blighted by some truly awful fight sequences, as well - which, given the genre of the film, is simply unforgivable. All of this juvenile scripting would have been fine if the film had managed to get just this one vital ingredient right. But, folks, I'm sorry to report that Warriors Of Heaven And Earth makes its worst mistakes in the action and violence department.
Time and time again, the fights fizzle out of energy and impetus. Dramatic build-up is forever squandered and action choreographers Leung Mau Hung and Tung Wai must still be scratching their heads wondering just where all their hard work has gone. Just like the confused end-result of the skirmishing in John McTiernan's otherwise great The 13th Warrior (a film that was butchered by its own creator, author Michael Crichton, when he locked his action-movie-certified director - with the likes of Die Hard and Predator to prove his credentials - out of the editing suite and re-cut the production, himself!), the melees in He Ping's film are edited in such a fashion as to deny any satisfying pay-off to each and cut and thrust and every hack and slash, resulting in a movie whose action feels incredibly curtailed and crushed within the confines of an almost A-Team style of concerted inoffensiveness. Bodies obscure the killing blows, the camera refuses to observe any wounding and the set-tos just lack any sense of cohesion or actual brutality. Oh, there is a shot of a warrior with an arrow going in one side of his head and sticking out of the other ... but, honestly, there are more convincing effects to be found in a joke shop. The same can be said about the almost subliminal arm-lopping that occurs a little later on. There are two major battles and a variety of confrontations in-between, yet none of them provide any excitement, suspense or risk. The dust-up in a shabby sand-blown outpost in which Li and his aged cohort are forced to climb over walls, escape and evade down tight alleyways and leap from rooftops actually shows some promise but, once again, the editing and the too-straightforward direction let the set-piece down. The problem, I suppose, is that we in the West have a tendency to think every Asian action flick that comes along will be brimming with wire-work, scintillating swordplay and fighting styles that border on the “fantastic”. Thus, with the likes of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hero and Curse Of The Golden Flower et al, showing us the most dynamic and accomplished end of what is, presumably, a very broad spectrum, we shouldn't really be surprised to discover the odd clunker popping up out of the wushu bargain-bin. Or, to put it another way, the bloodless Troy compared to the recent 300, or, in wider terms, Equilibrium when compared to The Matrix. Therefore, to an avid collector of period martial arts entries, Warriors may be quite acceptable. To a connoisseur, however, it just won't cut the mustard.