If John Wayne was still alive and making movies about the divine might of the U.S. of A., he would probably make something like Ping He’s “Warriors of Heaven and Earth”, which is, in a nutshell, about the divine might of China. To be sure, “Warriors” is an entertaining movie first and historical film second; there are even elements in it that not only stretches credulity, but makes you scratch your head and wonder what writer/director Ping He (“Sun Valley”) was thinking when he wrote the script. About an hour into “Warriors”, the movie’s Macguffin — a sacred Buddhist relic wanted by the movie’s villains — reveals itself in what can only be called extremely lame CGI.
“Warriors of Heaven and Earth” stars veteran Chinese actor Wen Jiang (“Devils on the Doorstep”) as Lieutenant Li, a soldier in the service of the Tang Emperor circa 700 A.D. Having declined to butcher civilian Turks (China’s main enemy of the time), Li goes on the run with a small band of loyal men. Years later, the Emperor dispatches Japanese emissary Lai Qi (Kiichi Nakai) to seek out and kill Li once and for all. But a problem arises: after being saved from certain death by a soldier guarding the sacred Buddhist relic, Li finds himself indebted not only to the soldier, but to the mission. As it turns out the Turks want the relics badly, and has negotiated with local warlord and all-around kook Master An (Xueqi Wang) to get it for them.
Li and Qi meet, but after a brief duel the two men agree to escort the caravan and its valuable Macguffin to its proper destination. Li’s men, long settled down, decide to come out of retirement to help out despite their former boss’s best efforts to discourage them. Also along for the ride is a young girl name Wen Zhu (Vicki Zhao, “So Close”) who Qi was escorting somewhere. There’s also an old mercenary nicknamed Old Diehard and a young kid named Lizard. Can this rag-tag bunch outrun Master An’s army of bandits? Better yet, why does “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” look like a shorter version of the Korean epic “Musa”, minus the unnecessary extra hour of running time?
As mentioned, “Warriors” is a dead ringer for “Musa”, which was also about two opposing personalities escorting something valuable to a certain location as an army relentlessly pursues them. Both movies have young and pretty Chinese actresses (Zhang Ziyi in the other movie, Zhao here) to inject some extraneous bits of romance and draw in the younger audience. But as it turns out, Zhao’s role as sometimes narrator but mostly superfluous presence echoes Ziyi’s role in “Musa”, but it should be said that Ziyi’s character engendered more genuine storylines in the Korean film than Zhao’s role in this Chinese production. Of course it helped that “Musa” was about two young male bucks, while “Warriors'” leading men are Jiang and Nakai, and both look to be in their late ’40s. Having said that, seeing Zhao’s character making eyes at Jiang’s Li is a bit disconcerting, to say the least.
Action-wise, “Warriors” is for the most part grounded in reality. The swordfights are brief and violent, but it’s nothing on the scale of say “Braveheart” or the aforementioned Korean epic. And unlike China’s other big historical epic of 2003, “Hero”, there are few, if any, wireworks in “Warriors”. As a pure action movie, “Warriors” works. There are plenty of bloody engagements, and people die by the dozens. The fights are often too chaotic to really see what’s going on, but I suppose that’s the reality of actual combat. (Then again it goes without saying that this is just a movie, and more coherent fighting choreography would have been preferred. But alas…)
The one thing “Warriors” excels at is the performances of its two main leads. Both Wen Jiang and Kiichi Nakai (“When the Last Sword is Drawn”), also a veteran of the acting trade in his native Japan, are more than capable of handling their complex parts. Both characters are men of honor, determined to complete their respective missions to the bitter end. The script does a wise thing and not make the men become bosom buddies by movie’s end; instead, they share a quiet admiration for one another, but there’s no doubt they’ll still kill each other as their respective duties dictate.
Another notable difference between “Warriors” and a number of Chinese historical epics (in particular the recent “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the Jet Li starrer “Hero”) are the costumes. Taking place in the year 700 A.D., the characters wear uniforms that look more comfortable on a French or British cavalry officer than a Chinese swordsman. It’s all a bit “off”, at least according to every Chinese historical movie I’ve seen. I’m sure it’s all historically accurate, but it’s still odd to see.
Unfortunately the movie’s second half de-evolves into a series of run-and-fight scenes, culminating in a final battle at an old military town. That final confrontation comes across as extremely rushed. Clocking in at just under 2 hours, I get the feeling that there should have been an extra 30 minutes added to “Warriors'” running time. Mind you I don’t think I would have enjoyed an extra 30 minutes, but it just seems as if the movie is incomplete without them. Also, the movie’s ending leaves something to be desired. Let’s just say that the lame CGI re-appears, inching a somewhat good movie dangerously close to being plain dumb, if not downright “comic book-y”.
Ping He (director) / Ping He (screenplay)
CAST: Wen Jiang …. Lt. Li Zai
Kiichi Nakai …. Lai Qi
Xueqi Wang …. Master An
Vicki Zhao …. Wen Zhu