Judge Adam Arseneau got halfway through describing this film as a "Chinese spaghetti Western" before he stopped writing and went looking for something to eat.
Our review of Warriors Of Heaven And Earth (Blu-Ray), published May 3rd, 2007, is also available.
Men are not born heroes…
A Chinese take on the big blockbuster historical epic, Warriors of Heaven and Earth is big, majestic, action-packed, and epic, a sweeping historical Tang dynasty drama set in the far reaches of the Gobi desert, full of swordfights, cavalry, evil warlords, magic, and mysticism. Though the DVD packaging compares the film to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the like, be careful about taking such illicit advice at face value…
Facts of the Case
In ancient China, the Tang dynasty stretched across all of Asia, and its might and sophistication were unparalleled in the world. At one time, the brave Li Zai was a decorated soldier in the Emperor's army, but after refusing a direct order to slaughter imprisoned Turkish women and children, Li was forced to slay members of the Emperor's army in order to escape prosecution. Furious, the Emperor put a bounty on his head, and enlisted the help of a Japanese assassin to track down the fugitive, now dubbed "Butcher Li."
An outlaw disgraced, Li is forced into hiring himself out as a disguised Turk mercenary, protecting caravans crossing the treacherous Silk Road from bandits. During one particular trek escorting a group of soldiers, a young Buddhist monk, and some holy texts across the Gobi desert, a terrible storm decimates the caravan. A single soldier, along with the monk (who is miraculously unharmed), is all that remain of the caravan. The entire escort has been completely wiped out…that is, until the soldier notices a masked and unconscious figure lying in the desert. Quickly, he saves the life of the unconscious (and still disguised) Li. When Li awakens, despite his feelings of hatred toward the Emperor's army, he vows to protect the caravan in recognition of the soldier who saved his life…at least, for a little while longer, until they reach the capital.
Suddenly a Japanese warrior appears, challenging Li to a fight. The assassin, Lai Qi, is a servant of the Emperor, and has been tracking Li across the country with orders to kill the outlaw. In exchange for this task, the Emperor will grant Lai Qi the freedom to return home to his native Japan. Sensing the assassin is an honorable man, Li makes a deal with his opponent: If Li can be bested in three attacks, then so be it; but if not, then Li is to be permitted to escort the caravan to the capital and fulfill his duties. After that, the two men can duel to the death all they want. Lai Qi agrees, and the fight begins; but the Japanese assassin is unable to best Li in the required three moves. As agreed, he allows Li and his men to leave. Lai begins to follow the caravan, observing from a distance, refusing to let his quarry out of his sight.
The two warrior's fates become intertwined when Li curries the disfavor of a local warlord, Master An. The warlord bombards the caravan with hoards of marauders, and seems particularly interested in the cargo carried by the young monk, who appears to be transporting an object much more valuable than simple texts. On the verge of being overcome by the warlords, the Japanese warrior is soon drawn into the fray when he pulls rank over An, presents the Emperor's sword, and forbids any further harm to the caravan.
Suddenly, Lai Qi finds himself in a bizarre position of defending the man he wishes to kill, both out of duty to the Emperor and to serve his own ends; after all, unless he can present the head of the traitorous Li to the Emperor, he will never be allowed to return home! When An attacks with renewed fury, both the assassin and Li are driven deep into the desert, fleeing from the onslaught of a never-ending stream of warriors, locked in a strange alliance to defend one another against a common enemy, and save the caravan and its mystical cargo from destruction!
In essence, Warriors of Heaven and Earth is a stylized Chinese cowboy film, a tale of honor and duty on the rugged dusty frontier landscape of an empire, surrounded by hoards of invaders, pinned down in an abandoned corral…err, an abandoned outpost. Instead of the American frontier, you have the desolate Silk Road, and instead of Indians, you have Turks—you get the idea. Suffice it to say, the imagery, plot devices, themes, and character developments are straight out of a Sergio Leone film, all mixed up and infused with Chinese history, mythology, and magic.
Yes, magic. Unfortunately, the subtle connotations of the referenced mythology will be lost on the majority of North American viewer (as they were on me), since we heathens lack a basic fundamental understanding of the intricacies of Chinese and Buddhist mythology. Luckily, this is not a problem in the context of the film, believe it or not, because these magical elements actually detract from the story itself (especially at the end.) My advice is to ignore the whole lot of it, since the magical elements are by far the weakest element in the story; it all takes second billing to the character-driven drama anyway, which keeps the film fueled at high-octane intensity.
The conflict between the two protagonists could have come straight from the pages of a bad Western, yet the film manages to play the elements straight with surprising success. The characters are honor-bound to the point of fault, which is so often the case in such historical / magical / romanticized dramas, but in this situation, it borders on cliché. Keep in mind, this is a Chinese cowboy film; reality often takes a back seat to highly stylized enjoyment, and in certain departments (costume design, for example), Warriors goes for visual flair over historical accuracy.
The Japanese assassin Lai Qi has served the Tang emperor for 25 years and desires nothing else but to return to his homeland. Defeating the outlaw Butcher Li will, theoretically, gain him his freedom, and his motivations to catch the bandit stem from a personal desire to be released from his servitude rather than any animosity towards Li on a personal level. He is unconcerned with the moral implications of Li's crimes; his death is simply a means to Lai Qi's own personal ends—that is, until he meets Li Zai and discovers him to be an honest man. Likewise, Li has no hard feelings towards Lai Qi for his assigned duties; he is a man who understands honor and duty. All Li wants is to retire, build a house with his friends and find a nice wife, but he feels duty-bound to protect the caravan until it reaches the capital. His old men eagerly volunteer to accompany him on his journey, but he refuses them. They have wives and children now, and he will not allow them to jeopardize their lives further to protect him.
Like the best cowboy characters of old, characters who theoretically should be completely detestable manage to come across with an inherent sense of honor and duty. Better yet, these characters at odds with one another grow an unspoken respect for one another; they never shake hands, hug and laugh together, or anything stupid like that. They remain on opposite sides of the fence, but gain an undeniable admiration for one another. Despite their particular vocation and past history, these outlaw characters become the characters you root for. In a sense, the bad guys in Warriors of Heaven and Earth are the good guys.
Well, except for Master An. That guy is just a dick.
The battle sequences are immaculately conceived and expertly executed, and make no mistake—the fight scenes are the one area where the film strives for gritty realism and historical accuracy over style and pomp. Sure, occasionally a character does perform a wire-fighting jump, spiraling dramatically through the air, but these touches are mere afterthoughts of expressions, dropped here and there to gain the occasional style point. Nothing wrong with that, if you ask me. And speaking of style, the film features, hands down, the best crossbow-related dramatic movie death sequence you will ever see. You will laugh, cry, and then laugh some more. It's that good.
From a technical standpoint, this DVD is nothing short of magnificent. The transfer is practically flawless, exhibiting a rich and sharp image with hardly any signs of digital distortion, dirt, scratches, or any other degrading characteristic. Though incredibly close, the image is not quite perfect; at times one might notice the occasional soft image and the tiniest specks of dust. Overall, though, the image is as smooth as a baby's bottom. The cinematography of the film is quite rich and beautiful, with massively panoramic shots of the Gobi desert as the primary backdrop—just a great looking movie all around. Colors are earthen tones, with splendid oranges, browns, and yellows, and black levels are all deep and rich.
On the audio side, this disc contains enough audio options to choke an international donkey: four Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks in Mandarin, English, Portuguese, and Spanish, and a French Dolby 2.0 Surround track (which seems kind of odd when you think about it—not sure why the French got stuck with the booby prize on this one). The native Mandarin track is fantastic and vibrant, making excellent use of the rear channels for ambient nose, sword fights and environmental effects. Dialogue can be soft at times, but is always audible and clear. The bass is deep and aggressive, and in terms of an immersive surround sound experience, the soundtrack is simply outstanding. The English dub sounds nearly identical and impressive, though the dialogue is inherently cheesy and lame. Admittedly, I spent little time playing with the other audio modes, but despite the slightly lowered bitrate for the Spanish and Portuguese tracks, music and battle sequences do seem on a par with the other mixes. The French 2.0 track, the odd track out, lacks the definition and poise of the beefier surround tracks, but c'est la vie—c'est Francais.
Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese; and while the English subs are well done overall, they seem to suffer from either technical or conceptual errors at the start of the film. The opening sequence of the film has an intro written in Chinese characters onscreen, and while all the other dubbed language tracks and subtitles provide translation, the English subtitles leave them auspiciously untranslated. Whether this was an intention decision or an oversight, it seems pretty silly to me. I suggest turning on the English dub, listening to the intro, and then turning them the heck off.
An English-dubbed featurette with the self-explanatory title of 'The Making of Warriors of Heaven and Earth" is included. Though the feature has a corny vibe to it (due to the horrible dubbing), it is certainly interesting, giving behind-the-scenes looks into cast, crew, location scouting, and film conception, including all the sword and horseback riding training. Also, you don't often get to see the ritual sacrifice of farm animals for luck during the first day of film production on a "making of" documentary, but I kid you not; this actually happens. Plenty of fun for sadists and animal rights activists all around. Also included are a music video for "Warriors of Peace" by Jolin Tsai, and the requisite trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though on the whole an enjoyable and well balanced film, there are three problems with Warriors of Heaven and Earth that stand out and need to be addressed. The first, the use of magical elements, has already been addressed and dismissed, so I shall not go into it again.
The second problem is that the film is needlessly difficult to follow for the first twenty minutes or so, almost as if the creators got so excited about making the darn film, they simply bombard the viewer with dates, places, names, faces, and swordfights. After about half an hour, the thread becomes much easier to pick up, but the first part of the film could definitely have used some tightening up (or loosening up, depending on your perspective).
The third and biggest problem in the film is the ending, which ties directly into the first problem. The ending is problematic to say the least…and by "problematic," I mean "sucks beans." Some endings are good, some endings let you down slightly, and some are just cheap cop-outs. Warriors of Heaven and Earth has the third kind of ending, with a healthy side of beans. I shall not spoil it for you, but suffice it to say? Total beans. Empty a tin of cold refried beans onto the floor, and listen to the sickening squelching sound. That kind of ending.
Still a great movie, though, after all is said and done. Not a perfect movie, but hey, what is?
Warriors of Heaven and Earth, at first glance, seems the odd man out in recent historical mythic Chinese epics, and has garnered some dismissive reviews as of late in comparisons to more popular films of recent years. While admittedly not as sophisticated as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon nor as visually mesmeric as Hero or House Of Flying Daggers, such comparisons are not really that apt. Warriors takes radically different in approach and style, and actually has more in common with spaghetti westerns like Once Upon A Time In The West than its Chinese martial art brethren. Call it a "noodle western" if it makes you feel better.
Warriors of Heaven and Earth, though not quite perfect, is a great Chinese blockbuster of a film. It is stylish, easily accessible, quite beautiful in its own right, and though it lacks the same visual flair of the aforementioned films, features some impressive swordfights and beautiful cinematography of its own. Plus, Zhao Wei is in it, and she is one of the purtiest darn people on this stinking rock of a planet. She really needed more to do in the film besides sit around and look incredibly, incredibly attractive, though.
Kudos to Sony for bringing this film to DVD in such splendiferous fashion; outside of the tiny subtitle gaffe, the technical presentation is nearly perfect. Despite the disc being relatively light on the extras, they sure know how to treat a good foreign film with the respect it deserves.
Not guilty, pardner. Saddle up.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "The Making of Warriors of Heaven and Earth"
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