If you’re looking for a good Western, and have already finished all your John Wayne and Clint Eastwood DVDs, you should give Call Of Heroes a try.
Wait! I hear you protest. Since when is Call Of Heroes a Western? There’s nary a cowboy hat in sight, and all the action scenes we’ve seen in the trailer feature martial arts stunts performed by actors like Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Eddie Peng, who are all as Asian as Asian can be.
And all that might be true, but I stand by what I say. This new film by director Benny Chan (Gen-X Cops, New Police Story, City Under Siege) is a Western in Chinese clothing, with kung fu masters instead of cowboys, and slick fists instead of six-shooters. It’s got shady drifters with hearts of gold, grizzled sheriffs and even heroic cavalry charges: sounds pretty Western to me!
Call Of Heroes is set in 1914, following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. When the film opens, we are introduced to Bai Ling (Jiang Shu Ying), a teacher who goes on the run with her students after their village is attacked by a ruthless warlord. The students are all ridiculously adorable moppets, one of whom even carries a pet Shiba Inu just in case they weren’t sympathetic enough.
Bai and her charges come across Ma Feng (Peng), a wanderer who proves to be a capable fighter. He saves her from a bandit, and she asks if he could help her escort the children to their teachers.
At first glance, this looks like the main plot of the film: those of you expecting a hilarious buddy adventure featuring a Chinese Jack Sparrow (yeah, Peng’s character feels like that sometimes!) and his kid sidekicks on a road trip, however, may be disappointed. For the film switches gears after that: Ma Feng and Bai head to a city in the rural area called Pucheng, which is watched over by sheriff Yang Kenan (Lau).
Pucheng is soon visited by the despicable Cao Shaolun (Koo), the son of the warlord who attacked Bai’s village. After committing some awful deeds, Cao is locked up, with Yang tasked to execute him. Cao warns him, however, that if he is dead, his father will be furious, and definitely destroy Pucheng in revenge.
This puts our boy in a dilemma: should he uphold justice and execute Cao, even if it means terrible consequences for all the people of his village? Is doing the right thing worth it if it comes at awful price?
All in all, the film looks great. Director Chan’s team reportedly spent five months building the Pucheng set, and as a result, everything feels real and authentic. What really sells this movie, however, are its action scenes. The legendary Sammo Hung serves as action director here, and this results in some terrific set pieces, most notably a no holds barred fight during a prison raid. You may never look at a wicker basket the same way again.
Call Of Heroes is not all punches and kicks, however. Chan takes the time to flesh out everyone properly: there are real stakes for almost all the characters involved in the dilemma of Cao’s execution, and this really adds to the tension. The film also features enough moments of comedy and poignancy to make it feel like more than just a mindless beat-’em-up.
The cast does a terrific job. Lau offers a standout performance, imbuing his grizzled sheriff with a delightful intensity that makes Yang Kenan both compelling and believable. He reportedly actually learned how to fight with a bullwhip for the movie; so yes, the scenes of him wielding that weapon are apparently real! Talk about being whipped into shape.
Peng is decent as Ma Feng, and Wu Jing shines as Zhang Yi, one of Cao’s generals who has a history with Ma Feng. As the sneering, sarcastic villain, Koo is occasionally a bit too over the top. Nevertheless, his character is definitely memorable, and viewers will probably spend most of the movie wanting to punch him in the face.
Not everything is perfect with this film of course. The film’s pacing occasionally lags, and the ending, when it comes, feels a little too neatly resolved. Certain story elements, like a group of Guardians apparently established by Yang to maintain justice in his city, do not get explored enough. And some of the CGI used in its effects-driven scenes is not too convincing. This is a pity as most of the film looks so good.
This aside, Call Of Heroes is a very entertaining action blockbuster, an Eastern Western that will provoke thrills and thought alike. It explores themes like duty, justice and sacrifice, and has some kick-ass scenes to boot. What more could you ask for?
Call Of Heroes
Director: Benny Chan
Cast: Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Jiang Shu Ying