Director: Gordon Chan
Cast: Vincent Chiu, Sammo Hung, Yasuaki Kurata, Regina Wan, Keisuke Koide, Wang Ban, Wu Yue, Jiang Luxia, Liu Junxiao, Micheal Tong, Timmy Hung
Running Time: 90 min.
By Kyle Warner
Ming soldiers advance on a fortified gate. Blood from a previous battle runs like a stream over the mud. Thousands of Japanese pirates wait on the other side of the gate, their latest attempt at a land grab to expand the reach of the Japanese empire. Sammo Hung’s General Yu leads China’s Ming soldiers on the offensive; his attacks are by the book, his timing predictable. General Yu is an old man fighting old-fashioned battles against an enemy that’s ready for the new world. Defeated once again, General Yu retreats back through the mud and the blood to find that his replacement is waiting back at camp.
Enter Vincent Zhao’s General Qi, war tactician and future national hero to China. He’s young, even-tempered, and dangerously smart. Qi takes one look at the pirate’s gate and breaches the Japanese defenses on the first go. Yu soon joins Qi and together they get the pirates on the run. The battle is over but the threat remains, and it’s clear that Qi, not Yu, should be the one chosen to chase the pirates back to Japan.
It’s an exciting first act full of action, war tactics, and some unexpected characters. The film sets a realistic tone with graphic violence and an emphasis on strategy. But then the first act ends, General Qi is tasked with training an army for the express purpose of defeating pirates, and the film gets lost in a sagging middle section with no surprises for almost a hour straight. The all too common appeals to patriotism also repeatedly rear their head during this section. It’s not offensively bad but you do notice it–more on the level of Michael Bay than The Founding of a Republic. The extended moment when family members see their men off to war plays a bit like an ad for joining the military.
General Qi may be a national hero in China, and as such Chinese audiences may not demand much character development. However, as someone unfamiliar with and with no attachment to Qi’s accomplishments, I feel the film never makes him into an interesting character. I don’t know his story well enough to accuse the film of hero worship but all the signs are there. Qi is a brilliant general, Vincent Zhao’s (True Legend) martial arts skills make him a formidable fighter, and he has just enough issues with his wife to establish that he’s married to a woman as tough as he is. The shortcomings in writing Qi might not have been so noticeable if the second act of the film wasn’t such a slog – and if the second act wasn’t carried almost expressly by Qi, making us miss the other, more interesting characters we were introduced to in the first act.
Sammo Hung (The Bodyguard) makes a strong impression in a dramatic role as the unimaginative, but no less dedicated, General Yu. Sadly, he exits the film early. The best performance comes from Yusuaki Kurata (Fist of Legend). The veteran actor plays the leader of the Japanese pirates as a student of war and the perfect nemesis to General Qi. Unlike many Chinese historical dramas, the Japanese are not depicted as outrageously evil men. They’re the bad guys, no doubt, but an attempt to give them an honest portrayal goes a long way to enhancing the dramatic tension.
After a dull middle, things pick up again in the action heavy finale. The fights, both big and small, are well filmed and expertly played. There is a moment—what I would call a medieval jet ski action sequence—where the attention to realism falls away. But the moment passes and we’re treated to a thrilling final act between Qi’s men and the last of the pirates.
God of War is not everything I could’ve hoped for from a Gordon Chan historical epic with this kind of cast. But it’s definitely not bad. A sizeable step above many other similar films to come out of China recently. Zhao is great in the action scenes, Kurata is excellent as the villain, and the attention to strategy in the battles makes for a welcome change. If not for the sagging middle, God of War could’ve been great. As is, there’s still enough recommend it to curious viewers.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10