God of War

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/03/17 14:31:29

"Sword-fighting and arrow-shooting action done right."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Chinese military epics can have a bit of a tendency to blend together after you've seen enough of them, especially if you're in them for impressive action more than any sort of strong affinity for Chinese military history - there are a lot of forces pushing them to fit a standard script and prioritizing style over clean execution. "God of War" certainly falls into that trap for for a time, but makes an incredibly strong recovery at the end, serving up some darn impressive old-school action.

The year is 1557, and China is besieged by Japanese wokou pirates. General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) has been trying to rout a particularly dug-in group for months, but his predictable attacks are rebuffed by the pirates, mad dog Kohata (Ryu Kohata) making jokes about how disciplined the Ming Army is after surviving the latest noon attack. High commander Hu Zongxian (Wang Ban) thus opts to bring in younger, more creative general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao Wen-zhou), and though the pair clash, they soon come to appreciate each other's skills. The innovative new opponent does not go unnoticed by the wily samurai secretly commanding the pirate forces (Yasuaki Kurata), who begins to plan a daring three-pronged attack as Yu is caught up in politics and Jiguang seeks to train a new type of soldier.

Director Gordon Chan Ka-seung and action director Qin Peng-fei open the film with a few strong sequences that do a fair job of establishing tone and the general atmosphere without a lot of fuss: It's fast-paced and bloody, not shying away from the ugliness of war even as the audience gets a good look at the glory of its pageantry: The highly-detailed armor and demon-faced shields that the Ming Army sports, the pirates' fans that ripple like water as they hold the up to dazzle their enemies. The early scenes do a nice job of setting up enough interesting details to keep the film from just being heroic Chinese versus evil Japanese invaders, with interesting conflicts in both camps.

It's strong enough that a somewhat saggy middle is kind of hard to explain. The time spent on Jiguang discovering a fierce set of miners and deciding to train them as his new army fits in with something mentioned earlier, but slows matters down, and the material with the samurai and pirates is pushed off-screen despite the fact that their internal conflicts are just as interesting as that of the Ming army. An important character exits the story never to be mentioned again after an admittedly nice bit of sparring with staffs, with much of the historic detail and palace intrigue seeming like name-dropping that doesn't accomplish much. Some ill-considered bits involving Jiguang''s wife bog things down.

The latter is especially a shame, as there's a very interesting chemistry between the Regina Wan Qian's forceful - arguably shrewish - Lady Qi and Vincent Zhao's Jiguang, who is generally humble but seems almost sheepish around her, even when the more vociferously masculine soldiers see it as weakness. It's something the writers don't quite seem to know what to do with but it gives both Wan and Zhao some good material that gives the customary scenes of the general and his strong-willed wife a little extra oomph and gets reflected very nicely in later action. Zhao, like co-star Sammo Hung, is not really the greatest actor; both are acceptable between fights but seem to get more expressive once the punching starts (and, to be fair, America seems to be getting a Mandarin soundtrack despite the film being shot in Cantonese). The film's not-so-secret weapon turns out to be Yasuaki Kurata, who has made a career of being the Japanese villain in Chinese films and gives his "Old Fox" a delightfully cunning intelligence both as a general and as a mentor to a young samurai played by Keisuke Koide.

The middle may stretch out, but then, then, we get to the last-act battle sequences, and holy crap, folks, it quickly becomes clear that the bloody, entertaining bits toward the start were just an appetizer. What started out as just something fun for serious action/tactics fans becomes a couple of great intercut battles, with great scale for something that seems a lot more close-up and practical than the norm. Chan and Qin build up may not have demonstrated a lot of specific tactics, but they make battle scenes that span entire cities into impressively-improvised moves and counter-moves, and when the action zooms close enough to show Zhao, Wan, Timmy Hung Tin-ming (Sammo's son), and others cutting through a swarm of pirates, the choreography is terrific and even a little CGI blood doesn't distract from the impression that the crew actually built these arenas and the camera is moving about them in a natural-feeling way, making the scale of the choreography even more impressive.

And then that's not even it, as a final great battle atop pirate ships becomes an old-school samurai duel between a couple of unexpectedly impressive combatants with inventive direction. It almost serves as an encore after the gigantic fights to defend a couple of cities, a chance for two excellent screen fighters to show their stuff and call back to a number of moments from before without having to be concerned for what else is going on. Chan and his crew even manage to give the scene a feel that seems to split the difference between Shaw Brothers-style Hong Kong action and old-school samurai pictures from Japan while peppering in a few good character bits, too.

By the time it's over, "God of War" is still basically what it looks like, a medieval-China action movie with some nationalistic tendencies. If it's going to be that, though, it might as well have action that's a cut or three above the usual, and even if you don't take the phrase literally, there is more than that in its back half alone, more than enough to make some of the other parts worth it.

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