Warriors of Heaven and Earth

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/07/04 00:39:02

"Go East, young man."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It all seems so very familiar: the honorable fugitive and his noble band of riders swear to assist a ragtag caravan as they cross the untamed West. Resistance is found in both the threat of savage natives and the determination of a bounty hunter eager to get his man. The elements are overcome, battles are won and lost, and honor stands tall. It’s a tale of the Old West, alright - but it’s a Chinese, not American, frontier story.

“Warriors of Heaven and Earth” is an epic dripping with influences of the Western genre, tilted on its ear with a 7th century China setting. This form of “Chinese Western,” as it’s been called, is a trademark of writer/director He Ping, who created the blend with his “Swordsman In Double Flag Town” and “Sun Valley” - the latter of which sounds like it could’ve been the title of a John Ford classic. Indeed, the Gobi Desert sequences in “Warriors” instantly brings Monument Valley to mind.

For the first hour, the film chugs along at its own easy pace, taking its time as the story of the aforementioned fugitive (Jiang Wen) slowly but surely unfolds. Then everything changes at the one hour mark; the plot takes a turn so out of place and yet so curious that we almost dive headfirst into another movie. I won’t reveal the corner the story takes, but I will say that it’s a fine reward to those who patiently waited for the plot to gel.

That’s when the movie really begins to kick into high gear. All the great, truly memorable moments of this film happen in the second half, the plot finally having a direct purpose, the characters now comfortably set in place. There are scenes here that will stick in your brain for days, like the eerie desert showdown between our thirsty heroes and the water-holding baddies, led by a warlord (Wang Xueqi) with a musical bent. Or the one in which bloody combat comes to a sudden halt by the arrival of something wonderfully unexpected.

The film also benefits from the usual impressive production design; like “Hero,” this is a work that looks, quite simply, incredible. But unlike the otherworldly visuals of Yimou’s film, “Warriors” has the realistic quality of an intricate historical epic. From costumes to set design to makeup to the sweeping widescreen cinematography, this is a production that creates from scratch another age. As a buff who’s always won over by such complicated movie efforts, I couldn’t help but be wowed.

There are those who may be disappointed by “Warriors,” as it focuses more on the character and the sweeping plot than on the fight sequences. Sure, we have some fantastic battle scenes, but those expecting more action may walk away slightly bored. Those wanting a fuller movie experience, however, an action epic with a richer plotline - you’ll find plenty here, with the full sweep of a grand Western saga eager to entertain.

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