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Warriors of Heaven and Earth

from left to right: Vicki Zhao, Wang Xueqi, Nakai Kiichi and Jiang Wen.
Chinese: 天地英雄
Year: 2003
Director: He Ping
Producer: Yan Yiyun, Wang Zhongjun
Writer: He Ping, Zhang Rui
Action: Tony Leung Siu-Hung, Stephen Tung Wai
Cast: Jiang Wen, Nakai Kiichi, Wang Xueqi, Vicki Zhao Wei, Zhou Yun
The Skinny: Well-produced, impressive-looking epic adventure which takes a lot of great elements and uses them in a respectable, commercial manner. Warriors of Heaven and Earth is no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but overall this is decent, audience-friendly stuff.
by LunaSea:

Yet another candidate for the currently vacant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon throne (i.e., a Western-accepted Chinese action epic), Warriors of Heaven and Earth has a lot going for it. One, it has an epic, Seven Samurai-like plot wherein Chinese ex-soldiers band together to protect a Buddhist caravan—without knowing initially that the treasure they safeguard is more than a few random buddhist texts and a sole young monk. Second, it has solid leads in Jiang Wen and Nakai Kiichi, as well as a comely "It" girl in saucer-eyed Vicki Zhao Wei. Third, it has simply superb production values, including marvelous cinematography (from veteran Zhao Fei) and a gorgeous Gobi desert location. The elements succeed for the most part; despite some narrative missteps and a lack of depth, Warriors of Heaven and Earth proves entertaining and commercially solid.

Jiang Wen is Lieutenant Li, AKA: Butcher Li, an ex-soldier of the Tang Dynasty, who's high on the Imperial wanted list for leading a mutiny. The mutiny was not one of your standard power-grabbing types; Li disobeyed orders because he was expected to murder women and children in cold blood. Having disappeared for many years, Li resurfaces, and promptly is roped into protecting a buddhist convoy that's lost its escort. Li's employment is an obligation; his life was saved by the last remaining soldier in the convoy, and Li doesn't take such a debt lightly. His goal is to lead the solider and a young monk to the capital, with a full complement of camels bearing buddhist texts in tow. However, there's an extra something among the texts which makes bandits a potential problem.

However, another issue comes first: Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi), a Japanese national in the employ of the Emperor, is hot on Li's tail. Lai Xi longs to return to Japan (he's been in China since he was thirteen years old), but must find and kill Lieutenant Li before he's allowed to return. Now ten years into his pursuit, Lai Xi arrives at a small town, where he's assigned to protect a general's daughter, Wen Zhu (Vicki Zhao Wei). Luckily Lt. Li shows up, giving Lai Xi the opportunity to fulfill his duty and head back to Japan. The two spar, but when Li's noble quest is revealed, Lai Xi promises to let Li fulfill his duty—on the condition that the two consummate their duel once the convoy has been safely delivered. Lai Xi ends up getting roped in as an extra protector when the evil—and somewhat annoying—Master An (Wang Xueqi, doing an inadverdant F. Murray Abraham impression), comes after the convoy with numerous cannon fodder Turks in tow. Their goal: the mysterious extra something in the convoy, which turns out to be an ancient Buddhist relic of untold power. Cue Raiders of the Lost Ark theme music.

The initial plot setup of Warriors of Heaven and Earth is compelling in that it recalls the same "downtrodden heroes protect a people's treasure" plotline as Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai. However, unlike that film, the prize here is not something mundane and irretrievably human, like the safety of a small village or some defenseless peasants. The big McGuffin of this film is a religious artifact which is a deux ex machina plot device portrayed with jarring special effects and an importance that can only be described as Hollywood-worthy. That the ancient relic possesses unknown power AND apparently can distinguish between good and evil makes the entire narrative arc of the film nearly perfunctory. Why go through all this blood, sweat and copious death just to have a couple of glowing rocks solve all your problems? Warriors of Heaven and Earth has Spielbergian conceits, but the matinee thrills that Raiders of the Lost Ark brought to the screen don't exist here. Simply put, this film is not inherently fun enough to warrant such a cheap and easy plot device.

Luckily, the film makes up for its fantasy plotting with decent, solid characters and well-staged drama. Also, there's enough action and tension to keep things interesting. Lai Xi and Lt. Li are honorable rivals who join forces against a sneer-worthy badguy to save a religious treasure—and both Jiang Wen and Nakai Kiichi bring gravity and grizzled presence to their heroic roles. The action itself is no great shakes; Hong Kong action director Stephen Tung (co-credited with Leung Mau-Hung) gives us some wirework and high-leaping action, but by and large this is grounded, heavily-doubled stuff that is far more typical of Hollywood than a supposed Asian production. Those seeking the balletic wonders of Crouching Tiger should just watch that movie again, but there is a dirt-and-sweat grittiness to the action in Warriors of Heaven and Earth which makes it compelling. That these guys are stuck in the desert, running out of water AND outnumbered by the pursuing Turks creates enough tension to keep audiences glued to their seats.

There are some other missteps with the production. Fans of Vicki Zhao will probably be annoyed since their photogenic idol is reduced to flower vase duty. Since she's a general's daughter, she can kick a little ass, but that's just what it is: a little. For most of the picture, she stands around in the background, makes eyes at Jiang Wen and provides narration for an audience that shares her position as an interested outsider. Her place in the film is indicative of where writer/director He Ping was going with this film: straight to Sony Classics International division. Warriors of Heaven and Earth has long been threatened for North American distribution, and it will likely happen this year, though box office prospects are assuredly nowhere near Crouching Tiger levels. This is a good, solid film that's enjoyable from an epic, commercial point of view, but it really does nothing beyond that. Warriors of Heaven and Earth is really not an emotionally involving film, and its success is more of an appreciation of its workmanship than anything else. Ultimately, this film is more earth than heaven. (Kozo 2004)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English, Chinese, Thai and Korean Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen