'Call of Heroes' ('Wei Cheng'/'Ngai Sing'): Film Review

Call of Heroes still exclusive - H 2016
Courtesy of Universe Films
Flawed, but thrilling.

Hong Kong helmer Benny Chan teams up with Sammo Hung for a martial arts blockbuster about a militiaman's confrontation with a murderous warlord in China circa 1910.

With its beleaguered lawman, brusque mercenary, and bellicose bandits from out of town, Hong Kong director Benny Chan's latest martial arts extravaganza is set in a small, forsaken town and boasts a musical score flowing with Morricone-aping motifs. Indeed, Sergio Leone's specter looms large over Call of Heroes, a film oozing nihilist violence on par with the bloodiest scenes in any of those spaghetti Westerns that have long informed Hong Kong's wuxia cinema.

Revolving around a local militia's efforts to protect a town from the onslaught of a sadist and his army, Call of Heroes could possibly rival Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven — which shares a similar premise — in its intensity. International aficionados of Asian action cinema should be overjoyed with Sammo Hung's cracking, inventive action choreography — the rattan tray you picked up at a self-styled "oriental" souvenir shop won't look the same ever again. Cinephiles, meanwhile, can reflect on how Chan (the Cellular remake ConnectedThe White Storm) took cues from Quentin Tarantino — psychopathic villains, talky standoffs and the like — and in effect joins a cross-cultural cinematic bloodline leading back to Chang Cheh, Leone and Akira Kurosawa.

But there's another layer to Call of Heroes, too. Unfolding in a fictional enclave called Pucheng, which literally translates as "Ordinary City," Call of Heroes seeks to tap into a certain vein of public discontent in modern-day China, with its recurrent real-life stories about amoral scions doing whatever they please — a scenario Chan pushes to a bloody extreme with the deadly misdeeds of the film's antagonist here.

Perhaps trying to make sure his main demographic — audiences in China and Hong Kong, where the film opens this week — would engage with what is easily the most socially conscious film in his career, Chan (and his four co-screenwriters) at times resorts to unnecessarily schmaltzy melodrama to spell out the moral questions at hand. Meanwhile, there also are out-of-place comic touches, mostly revolving around a narcissistic swordsman whose cocky, modern-looking demeanor repeatedly disrupts the film's suitably gloomy and near-apocalyptic tone.

But it's with the comical swordsman that Call of Heroes begins, as the unseemly Ma Feng (Eddie Peng, Rise of the Legend) is shown waking up from his drooling slumber in a tavern and then giving a gang of robbers a thorough yet completely cheeky battering. Strange beginnings, for sure, as Call of Heroes is in no way a Jackie Chan-style action comedy: Ma is actually not even the main protagonist here, as this ominous tale about survival and compromises centers around Yang Kenan (Sean Lau, Overheard), the militiaman (or "sheriff," according to the English subtitles) designated to lead Pucheng's defense since the regular army is away fighting mutinous warlords elsewhere.

Yang's authority is soon put to the test by a mysterious man who guns down three people, including a child, upon his arrival in town. While the townsfolk initially support Yang's decision to put the man to death, the public tide turns as they learn that the killer is Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo, The White Storm), the trigger-happy son of a murderous warlord whose forces plunder and burn everywhere they go.

What follows is a series of crises as Yang faces down an internal mutiny as the people plead with him to free the murderer. Meanwhile, Cao plays to the gallery with his ever-escalating efforts to humiliate Yang and his underlings, abusing them and even himself in order to drive everyone into a self-preservation frenzy. And it's here that Ma joins the fray, his failure to obtain help from Zhang Yi (Wu Jing, SPL2: A Time for Consequences) — an estranged blood brother now serving as Cao's aide — preceding his decision to join up with Yang to fight the baddies.

Call of Heroes' small-time heroes are the highlight of the film. The ever-bankable Lau delivers a suitably substantial turn as the pic's unraveling hero, with Yuan Quan and Liu Kai-chi chipping in with matching performances in their smaller supporting roles as Yang's wife and lieutenant, respectively. The same cannot be said of the others, however. Koo, for example, offers an unnecessarily hammy villain (in a role that was probably already quite a caricature on paper), while Peng offers a lightweight take on a character who, as the film proceeds, is revealed to have suppressed his personality beneath a cynical, Man-With-No-Name veneer.

While the drama flounders, the imagery rides in to save the day. Chan's cast and crew have certainly responded to his call for a white-knuckle ride through wuxia and war-movie territory, with Pakie Chan's camerawork, Ben Lau's production design and Ken Law and Lucky Leung's visual effects (which are nearly seamless, barring the final farewell scene atop a mountain) providing an apt backdrop for Hung's hectic, epic fights. While weighed down by excessively grotesque characters and jarring comical interludes, Call of Heroes still offers a thrilling ode to the classical chivalry-driven martial arts fare once seen as the natural terrain for Hong Kong filmmakers.

Distributor: Well Go USA
Production company: Universe Entertainment Limited
Cast: Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Yuan Quan
Director: Benny Chan
Screenwriters: Benny Chan, Wong Doug, Tam Wai-chin, Tim Tong, Chien I-chueh
Producers: Benny Chan, Alvin Lam
Executive producers: Daniel Lam, Yu Dong, Alvin Chau, Ben Yuan, Cai Dongqing, Liang Wei
Director of photography: Pakie Chan
Production designer: Ben Lau
Costume designer: Joyce Chan
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
Music: Wong Kin-wai
Action director: Sammo Hung
International sales: Universe Films Distribution

In Cantonese or Mandarin

Not rated, 119 minutes