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If it looks like a period piece, embodies the spirit of a Western, and fights like a kung-fu pic, then it’s gotta be...a half-baked excuse for all of the above.
There is a quote in Shakespeare’s Henry V that has been parroted for hundreds of years because it speaks to the bleeding-heart-libertarian in all of us: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Chinese filmmaker He Ping must’ve brushed up on his bard—along with his Sergio Leone, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, John Woo and even Steven Spielberg—prior to sculpting his Warriors of Heaven and Earth, for his film walks, talks, and acts like all of them, albeit landing in territory far more caricatured and much less distinguished.
That it revels in B-movie-showmanship rather than A-movie-virtuosity is no big surprise; the aforementioned auteurs all realized that in order to paint an epic, you need to find a big enough canvas to support all that superfluous weight. And the
The story itself, while handsomely presented, mucks things up even more. Jiang Wen leads the ensemble as the discharged Lieutendant Li, wanted by the emperor for refusing a decree by which women and children would’ve been slaughtered as a result. The man hired to wrong the right is a Japanese guerilla swordsman (Nakai Kichii), who chases Li in the hopes of receiving a pardon which would allow him to be homeward bound.
There’s also a murderous warlord (played with sadistic relish by Wang Xueqi) who bears an uncanny likeness to a praying mantis, dispatching his prey with yoga-like efficiency. And a young maiden (Zhao Wei) who takes a break from batting an eyelash or three at our dashing hero just long enough to deliver a few sprawling, out-of-place narratives. But the real hanger-on in the film is a monk carrying what turns out to be some sort of nuclear Buddhist relic. The inclusion of his character (and that Grail-ish device he holds) is what forcefully drives Warriors towards its preposterous payoff, which comes complete with Indiana-Jones-inspired, apocalyptic explosions and an unstylish bloodbath. What arrives beforehand then becomes ceremonial; we know there’ll be an ambush sequence, a reluctant bond formed between two reluctant heroes, and an inescapable dilemma which serves as the boiling point (in this case, it’s H20, or rather, a lack thereof). Too amateurish to be epic (several scenes cut away abruptly without any sort of follow-up context), too quasi-epic to be unassuming, Warriors of Heaven and Earth ends up in cinematic no-man's-land. Which, all things considered, is a pretty unheavenly place to be.
Date Posted: 9/17/2004