Call of Heroes (2016) Review

"Call of Heroes" Theatrical Poster

“Call of Heroes” Theatrical Poster

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

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5 Responses to Call of Heroes (2016) Review

  1. Awesome review Kyle. I always liked Benny Chan. Moment of Romance, Big Bullet and Gen X Cops are all solid movies (Did he do Gen Y Cops also?). The guy was also responsible for Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, which was Jackie’s last movie that felt like a “Jackie Chan flick”. And there’s also the underrated New Police Story.

    You know, considering you usually give movies you really like a “7”, Call of Heroes must be really good. Looking forward to checking it out.

    • Paul Bramhall says:

      Yep…Benny Chan helmed ‘Gen Y Cops’ as well. As a commerical fimmaker, he’s one of those directors who when he hits the mark, he really hits it, and when he misses it, the result is borderline unwatchable. Huge fan of ‘Who Am I?’, ‘Invisible Target’, and ‘Connected’. Literally can’t stand to watch more than 5 minutes of ‘Heroic Duo’, ‘Divergence’, ‘City Under Siege’, and ‘The White Storm’. That said, I’m greatly looking forward to ‘Call of Heroes’ so only skim read the review, as prefer to watch movies that I’m excited about first before checking out any others opinions. But that score definitely puts a smile on my face!

  2. Paul Bramhall says:

    I believe this is the first time I’ve come across a Kyle Warner review (trademark) that I so strongly disagree with. I got through watching this one last night, and thought it was abysmal. I think the main problem for me lies in one of the comments you made – “Ignoring Louis Koo, though, I found the film to be thoroughly entertaining overall.”

    As the movie essentially wouldn’t exist without Koo’s character, I found him impossible to ignore, and he’s the worst thing in it. He’s the son of a famous general who likes killing innocent people, that’s it. No characterization. No motivation. No meaning. He’s one of the lamest villains in recent movie history, and turns in a performance that rivals Donnie Yen in ‘The Monkey King’ for pure irritation.

    Guys like Aaron Kwok and Koo need a good director to get the best performances out of them, and Benny Chan just isn’t that guy. If anything, he’s responsible for drawing some of the worst performances out of them, as both actors tendency for overacting simply isn’t reigned in when they’re in a Chan flick.

    It’s a mystery to me why Lau Ching Wan would be cast as the lead in an action movie, I mean the guy even looked embarrassed for himself when he was called upon to throw down in ‘The White Storm’, and if anything he’s given even more to do here than he was there. One scene is even a stationery static shot of him sitting in a chair twirling his trusty bull whip, and even in this scene the whip is CGI. I mean c’mon, if Michelle Pfeiffer can whip the heads off a row of mannequins, couldn’t you have at least learnt how to sit there and twirl it around in the air!?

    Eddie Peng’s performance is painfully self aware, and someone really needs to teach him that it’s not possible to ‘act’ charismatic. You either have it or you don’t, and the only thing that could make it worse for someone that doesn’t have it, is watching them try to. Wu Jing was the surprise of the movie, he’s actually developed into a good actor and is suitably intimidating (much more than Koo), however he’s given the most hilariously undignified exit from a movie I’ve seen for a long time.

    All in all I just feel like Chan’s post-2010 efforts have missed the mark. He’s never been able to handle drama very well, and instead of improving he only seems to get worse with each movie. One scene which has the townsfolk begging Ching Wan to let Koo go literally feels like it goes on forever, and Ching Wan’s unwavering morality is so rigid it becomes unbelievable.

    However my biggest question for ‘Call of Heroes’ is, was everyone in 1915 China really a shade of Donald Trump orange?

    • Kyle Warner says:

      Sad!

      It’s been too long for me to defend the film on some of the finer points you made. All I can say is that I still think rather fondly of the movie. Louis Koo was horrible, sure, but the action was cool and I enjoyed the western vibe. Maybe I was in a rare forgiving mood when I watched it the first time? It happens! I’ll have to revisit the movie sometime this year.

      Agreed with you on the points made about Benny Chan, though. Like others (I think?) I was one of those who once thought Benny Chan was going to be a huge name, like he might take over where John Woo and co. left off. Um, that… that didn’t happen. If anything, Benny Chan’s gotten worse as he’s gone along. 90’s Benny > post-2000 Benny. That being said, I still like this one more than most of the films he’s made over the past decade plus.

      • HKFanatic says:

        For what it’s worth, Kyle, I completely agree with your review. I can understand Paul’s criticisms and complaints, but I enjoyed “Call of Heroes” with no qualms. I think it’s Benny Chan’s best movie in ages. I loved the combination of a “Seven Samurai”-esque plot with a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, not to mention some clean and ferocious fight choreography by Sammo Hung.

        I’m no Louis Koo fan but I tend to think he’s at his best when playing villains, amoral criminals, or psychopaths (see also: SPL 2, Triad Election, Drug War), so his performance here worked for me. If I had one major complaint about Call of Heroes, it’s that the ending let the hand-to-hand combat fall to the wayside in favor of a whole village-full of explosions. I guess it’s fun to watch the pyrotechnics, but I wanted more fisticuffs.

        Regardless, Call of Heroes ranks as one of my favorite Hong Kong movies of the last 5 years.

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