Director: Benny Chan
Writer: Benny Chan
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Yuan Quan, Maggie Jiang, Liu Kai-Chi, Wu Jing, Phillip Keung, Sammy Hung, Berg Ng, Xing Yu
Running Time: 120 min.
By Kyle Warner
When a bloodthirsty warlord’s son comes to town and commits a crime, is the son to be held to the same rule of law as the rest of us? Or must we respect his family name, for fear of his father’s retribution if justice is done? This is the question at the heart of Call of Heroes, Benny Chan’s new action movie about struggling for survival while maintaining a moral code.
It’s 1915. Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo), the warlord’s son, is a cackling maniac who’s just looking to have a good time. He arrives in the small city of Puncheng early in the morning before most people are awake and sits down to have breakfast at a diner. He kills three people for no reason at all before he even takes a bite of his food and is about to leave the scene when the town’s sheriff shows up to cuff him. Sheriff Yang (Lau Ching-Wan) holds a quick trial and announces that Cao will be executed the next day, but Cao’s soldiers arrive in the middle of sentencing and threaten the town: release our commandant or else. Thing is, Cao doesn’t want to go. He’d rather stay in a cell and watch the people of Pucheng tear themselves apart with worry about the army outside the city walls. At first, Sheriff Yang had to keep his people back, fearing that they’d kill Cao themselves. Now, he must justify a strong stance to keep Cao in his cell, while the people of Pucheng beg him to release the murderer and save the town.
Though I hesitate to call the film a western, it’s clear that’s where much of the story’s inspiration comes from, with links to Leone’s heroes, Peckinpah’s violence, and High Noon’s one-man-against-the-world cynicism. Call of Heroes’ obvious love for westerns is not external in the same way as Sukiyaki Western Django, The Good the Bad the Weird, or even Kundo, all of which attempted to transplant the look and feel of Spaghetti Westerns into Asia (with varying degrees of success). For Call of Heroes, the windup may look and sound like a western, but the delivery is much more of the Shaw Bros. variety.
Call of Heroes’ action is directed by the legendary Sammo Hung (The Bodyguard), who infuses the martial arts mayhem with ingenuity and a sense of fun. Though clearly aided by CGI and wires, I think even the most old-school martial arts fans will enjoy the action here, as Sammo Hung comes up with some incredible moves and a few strange beats that I’ve never seen before.
Benny Chan’s direction is pretty good as well, juggling action, dramatic tension, and humor with mostly satisfying results. I say ‘mostly’ because I must question his decision to include so many laughs and bloody massacres in the same movie, but at least the two thematic opposites do not mix in the same scenes. Chan’s filmography is full of highs (A Moment of Romance) and lows (City Under Siege). I like a good handful of Benny Chan’s films even if it’s rather difficult to count myself as a fan of the director. Whether you’re a Chan supporter or a detractor, I think you’ll agree that Call of Heroes belongs in the conversation of the director’s best.
Chan’s screenplay is full of interesting thematic content. The four male leads each must combat their moral ideals in order to survive. Lau’s Sheriff Yang is stubborn in his belief for law and order, and is willing to die defending it. Eddie Peng’s wanderer Ma Feng would like to come across as a thuggish rogue but his own moral compass leads him to do the right thing when it counts most. Ma Feng’s old colleague Zhang (Jacky Wu) now works as an enforcer for Cao, burying his morality deep underneath what he believes to be a realist’s rationale but is more like ruthless ambition. And Louis Koo’s Cao is completely lacking in any moral sensibilities. A nihilist, he’s happy just watching the world burn as long as he’s got a good seat for the fire. One sequence even has Cao attempting suicide, just so he can enjoy the irony of the Pucheng villagers coming to his rescue when hours before they’d wanted to see him executed.
The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Lau Ching-Wan (A Hero Never Dies) is solid as the Gary Cooper-style lawman standing up for what he believes is right. Though he may not be much of a martial artist, Lau’s given a few interesting weapons that make his fights interesting nonetheless. When Lau kicks ass with a whip, I was excited. When he beats the hell out of a dude with a soup ladle, I might’ve cheered out loud. Jacky Wu (Kill Zone 2) provides a strong performance as the emotionally cold henchman under Cao’s command. It’s probably the most reserved performance in the picture, which actually makes for a nice change in a movie that’s turned up to 11 much of the time. Playing a character that’s part Toshiro Mifune, part anime hero brought to life, Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend) makes for a fine secondary hero. Action director Sammo Hung’s son Sammy Hung (Dragon Blade) gets a supporting part as one of Sheriff Yang’s trusted subordinates and has a few cool moments utilizing tonfas in fight sequences. The best dramatic performance comes from supporting actor Liu Kai-Chi (Z Storm) playing Sheriff Yang’s deputy Liao, who must beg his friend and colleague to see reason. And though primarily male led, a couple ladies do get in on the action, with Yuan Quan (From Vegas to Macau 2) and Maggie Jiang (Cities in Love) getting a few memorable moments both in action sequences and dramatic scenes.
Louis Koo’s performance is weak, though. I normally like Koo (Election 2), though I’ve come to think of him more as a movie star than as an actor lately. Given the right character, Koo is able to bring out his natural charisma and cool. At times, though, Koo will take a part that’s better suited for a character actor. Perhaps this is his way of testing his range. As the villainous Cao, I think Koo is going for something along the lines of Heath Ledger’s Joker but it falls woefully short. Too often his stagey laughter makes for a flat performance. If he had a mustache, he’d be twirling it the whole damn time. Cao might’ve been a frightening villain on the page, but the only thing scary about Koo’s performance is that these are somehow the best takes that the editor had to work with.
Ignoring Louis Koo, though, I found the film to be thoroughly entertaining overall. The stuntwork is insane and the fight choreography is creative, the character work is fairly deep and the screenplay is smarter than you’d expect. Sure, Call of Heroes sports a few weak spots, but I didn’t really care that much while watching the movie; I guess I was having too much fun. Cool Hong Kong superstars of today and yesterday clashing on beautiful sets with action choreographed under the watchful eye of Sammo Hung? It’s the sort of movie that reminds you of why you became a fan of Hong Kong action cinema in the first place.
Simply put, Call of Heroes is one of the best action movies of 2016. Highly recommended.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10