Sony // 2003 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 3rd, 2007
Men are not born heroes.
Although I'm a bit uncertain about the tagline just offered, Warriors of Heaven and Earth is an engaging tale of ancient soldiers who must balance military assignment with individual honor. While this isn't the usual high-flying wirework martial arts outing that American audiences have come to know and expect in recent years, it manages to draw us in to its world of conflict versus conduct, seasoned with a dose of ancient Asian mythology.
Lieutenant Li (Wen Jiang) is a soldier for the Tang Emperor, but is ordered to be executed when he refuses to slaughter a cache of Turkish prisoners, women and children all. Li escapes his would-be executors and flees to the Gobi Desert, accompanied by a handful of loyal comrades. Li establishes a livelihood by providing protection to traveling caravans, ultimately accompanying a Buddhist monk in possession of a mystical and magical relic, intended for the Emperor. As he seeks swordsmen to assist him on this particular task, Li is confronted by Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi), an assassin hired to find and kill Li. Following a brief standoff of swordplay, the two decide to delay their duel until the caravan has been safely escorted to its destination. A group of bandits led by An (Wang Xueqi) besiege the caravan and battle for possession of the magical artifact. Li and Lai trek across the desert until they reach a deserted fortress, where they'll stage a final bloody standoff with their attackers, knowing their own confrontation is still to come.
At its core, Warriors of Heaven and Earth can be likened to the American western, presented here against the backdrop of the rugged and dusty Chinese landscape. The characters are likewise well-worn, both Li and Lai appearing as well-traveled soldiers in their forties, adding to their convincing quality within the scope and structure of their individual journeys and unlikely collaboration. Both actors are duly steely-eyed and determined in their quests as well as their morals. Their commitment to their characters make watching them perform entrancing and highly engaging.
Director He Ping infuses a definite style that substantiates the tone of the plot. Although we understand the savage potential that boils deep inside the two warriors, it is their unwavering honor that gives them a sort of humanity that few movie antagonists ever achieve. To this end, Ping convinces us to admire these two otherwise unsavory characters, one an exiled traitor and the other an opportunistic assassin. Through a deliberate arrangement of patient sequences and setups, Ping gives us opportunities to see deep inside the compelling and defining character of each man, affording us a better ability to empathize with their unwanted but unavoidable conflict. The excellent scenery of Shanghai and Xinjiang serve as mood-inducing backdrops that serve the story and the characters well.
Another Blu-ray exclusive release from Sony, Warriors of Heaven and Earth is presented in high definition with grace and gilt. The 1080p / MPEG-2 encoded transfer delivers impressive detail that shows off the intricacies of the 700 A.D. period wardrobe, weaponry, and structural workmanship. Colors are rich and well rendered, aided by excellent contrast and deep black levels. The source print appears to be in perfect condition, and overall, the transfer never reveals any noticeable compression artifacts. The audio is likewise well rendered in the uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround mix (you can choose the original Mandarin language track or an English dub). The soundstage is expansive yet lush; the environments well rendered and realistic with dialog properly centered amid a constant flow of ambient effects and emotive score.
Extras on the disc are rather paltry in quantity but still partly pleasing in quality. The 25-minute featurette, The Making of Warriors of Heaven and Earth, offers a good look at the production and the scenic and cinematographic approach used in creating it. The music video of Jolin Tsai's "Warriors of Peace" is entertaining enough, though its inclusion is not significant. Light though this Blu-ray disc is on bonus content, it does account for the same features previously included in the standard definition DVD, thus making this a complete package for those seeking a high-definition upgrade.
I suspect much of the mystical content contained within the narrative had deeper meaning and consequence than I was able to immediately grasp, causing that element of the story to become somewhat lost on me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed its inclusion since it gives the proceedings a "folk tale" flavor. This, plus the strong undercurrent of personal honor over political loyalty, gives the film a pleasing tone and texture of the culture that spawned it. However, this mysticism plays a pivotal role in the picture's ultimate resolution, plus it suffers a bit in CGI-generated execution earlier, unfairly causing it to ring a bit flat and confounding to those not well-versed in Chinese mythology. This isn't a fatal flaw, but it does unwittingly limit the picture's ability to fully resonate with multi-national audiences.
While the story is a bit uneven in the way it incorporates characters, setting, and mystic elements, there's still a compelling quality about Warriors of Heaven and Earth that translates into a satisfying viewing experience. The benefits of the high definition treatment, visually and audibly, make this a disc worth seeing and potentially including into your high definition library.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Featurette: The Making of 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth'
* Music Video
* Blu-ray Previews