'God of War': Film Review

GOD OF WAR - Still 2-Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Well Go USA
A satisfying period war film with an especially good eye for strategy.

Vincent Zhao plays a Ming Dynasty general in Gordon Chan's latest martial-arts epic.

Strategy's the star in God of War, Gordon Chan's historical action film about a Ming Dynasty commander intent on beating a superior force of pirates led by Japanese samurai. Vincent Zhao is well cast as a stiff, duty-driven warrior who steps into the shoes of a General (Sammo Hung, known in the U.S. as Jackie Chan's frequent co-star) whose long campaign against the pirates bore no fruit. Competent on all fronts but never dazzling, it should please genre devotees but won't cross over to a broader audience.

Zhao is General Qi, who with Hung's General Yu has been mounting a siege on a compound held by an odd coalition: A group of elite Japanese warriors commands an unruly bunch of ronin, masterless samurai who in this case are more loutish than usual. Early on, we get to see idealistic young soldiers on both sides complain about those under their command. While Qi begs his superiors to let him train a new, braver army, a counterpart on the Japanese side is aghast at those ronin, who blow off post-battle steam by raping villagers. His elderly commander (an unnamed "sensei" played charismatically by Kurata Yasuaki) more or less shrugs — "to each his own," he says, accepting that such alliances are necessary if Japan wants to rule the world.

Unscrupulous though he may be, the old colonel knows talent when he sees it. As the Ming forces, with Qi as their new leader, behave in ways that baffle younger generals, the sensei realizes he has found a worthy opponent. The screenplay helps make Qi's cleverness engaging for those of us who don't pore over military biographies for fun, sharing his interest in new weaponry — like "three-eyed" muskets and an ouchy-looking spear adorned with tree branches — and keeping the tricky tactics simple enough for us to grasp.

Qi is less interesting as a man, though his loyalty to Yu is endearing. Scenes with his proud, beautiful wife (Regina Wan) sometimes feel like misdirection, hinting at betrayals or feuds that never come. (Instead, the movie somewhat incredibly turns her into an action hero.) But the politically naive Qi does manage finally to get permission to create that new army, after discovering a mining village whose scrappy populace has had to fight to keep its gold.

It takes a bit of mano-a-mano between Qi and their leader to convince the miners to join the cause. Small-scale duels like this one can be more engaging than the epic army clashes in God of War. In fact, this is the rare action film whose climactic one-on-one showdown doesn't play like an obligatory set piece. Qi finally meets the old sensei, who fights on even after he's forced to send his underlings scurrying to safety, and the elder puts up a hell of a fight. Strategic genius notwithstanding, people aren't going to call you a god of war if you can't step away from the maps and kick a little ass when required.

Production company: People's Film
Distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Vincent Zhao, Sammo Hung, Wan Qian, Koide Keisuke, Kurata Yasuaki, Regina Wan
Director: Gordon Chan
Screenwriters: Xiong Zhaozheng, Maria Wong, Frankie Tam, Wu Mengzhang
Producers: Cheng Chun, Pong Paul
Executive producers: Peter Lam, Yu Dong, Ni Zhengwei
Director of photography: Takuro Ishizaka
Production designers: Yau Wai, Ming Alfred
Costume designer: Wong Po Yee
Editor: Chan Ki Hop
Composer: Shigeru Umebayashi

In Chinese
128 minutes