A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 91 mins.
2007, R, 91 mins.
Jet Li: Rogue / Jason Statham: Jack Crawford / John Lone:
Chang / Mathew St. Patrick: Wick / Sung Kang: Goi /
Luis Guzmán: Benny / Ryo Ishibashi: Shiro Directed by Philip G. Atwell /
Written by Lee Anthony Smith & Gregory J. Bradley
Jet Li: Rogue / Jason Statham: Jack Crawford / John Lone: Chang / Mathew St. Patrick: Wick / Sung Kang: Goi / Luis Guzmán: Benny / Ryo Ishibashi: Shiro
Directed by Philip G. Atwell / Written by Lee Anthony Smith & Gregory J. Bradley
WAR is not only a bad film, but also a stunningly incompetent one at that. It manages to display its utter ineptitude by failing to utilize stars Jet Li and Jason Statham to any satisfying degree, nor does it play up to their strengths as martial arts action stars. Not only that, but the film has a late breaking plot twist of such shameful, irretrievably inanity that a scene having one of the characters waking up in a cold sweat and stating, “It was all just a horrible dream” would have more fulfilling.
WAR is a decidedly wasteful and dull movie-going experience, made all the more frustrating because it certainly thinks its smarter than its viewers, when in actuality the audience can spot potential plot developments from a proverbial mile away. Rarely have action films invited such incredulous scorn.
But wait! I know what you're going to say: This film stars Jason Statham, my self anointed king of an action film genre that I have dubbed (copyright pending) Cinema of Incredulity. His past films, like the two TRANSPORTER films and – to an even larger degree – last year’s howlingly entertaining CRANK, epitomize this genre. You know, the kind of action films that have a laughable and commendable level of self-awareness about just how improbably outlandish and preposterous they are with their stunts and set pieces. I sort of have a peculiar appreciation and fondness for the way Statham’s last few films willingly jumped over endless chasms of impossible reason and common sense with their action scenes. You kind of laugh at and with these moments, which, as a result, is why I kind of derived so much enjoyment out of watching them. You not only checked your brain at the door, but also had a valet take it and secure it for safe keeping for you until you left the theatre.
WAR could have been in the same proud tradition of this genre, but it is such an excessive squandering of possibilities and expectations. Instead of being infectiously silly and over-the-top with its spectacle, it becomes a ponderous, oftentimes incomprehensible, and tensionless thriller that tries way, way too hard to be taken seriously. This is compounded by the notion that Statham and Li never really play characters that we invest in and like.
Yes, they are in prime, stoic, and stone-cold ass-kick mode throughout most of the film, but there is no joyous life and forward momentum to the story that they are involved in. I grew dizzy just thinking about how WAR could have been a throwback, 1980’s buddy cop action flick with Statham and Li having fun with their roles. Instead, we get an insipid and trudgingly dull YOJIMBO rip-off with lame brained plot developments and too many unsympathetic and minimally developed characters. The final icing on the cake would be the laughably pitiful dialogue and performances, the latter being keening demonstrated by Li, who proves his genuine lack of range in English speaking films. Perhaps WAR's biggest sin is that when Li and Statham do go mano-a-mano, it’s such an incomprehensible letdown that you kind of want to go to the ticket booth and demand a refund.
Well, is WAR tense and taut action thriller (as advertised) that pits Statham versus Li in a battle of wits and martial arts supremacy? Not really. It sacrifices infectiously bombastic action for story (big mistake) and the film’s exposition is done at such a snail’s pace that you check your watch feverously when you should be getting involved with the proceedings. The setting is San Francisco and there is a war brewing with the Yakuzi and the Triad. The Japanese bloc is lead by Shiro (Ryo Ishibashi) and his daughter, Kira (Devon Aoki). The Chinese faction is helmed by Chang (John Lone). In pure YOJIMBO mode is a deadly assassin named Rogue (Li, not to be confused with the X-Men heroine) who mysteriously pits both sides against each other. Shiro thinks that he is in strict cahoots with the killer, whereas Chang also thinks he has the same relationship. What’s an evil organization to do?
Meanwhile, a US FBI agent named Jack Crawford (Statham) has his own stakes in catching Rogue. You see, he could care less if both the Yakuzi and the Triad wipe themselves off of the face of the earth; he simply wants to get Rogue for personal reasons. In the film's opening segment (horribly edited and murky in its construction), Crawford saw his partner brutally killed. Ever since, Crawford has made finding Rogue is top priority. I mean, Rogue killed his partner, his wife, and child right while they were preparing a family BBQ. That son of a….it’s one thing when your partner is wasted, but when he is eradicated while prepping T-bones on a summer day, then it’s personal.
Yet, Crawford begins to see that the seemingly unstoppable Rogue is actually pitting both crime organizations against one another. One of my biggest misgivings about the film is that instead of making it a personal revenge and cat n’ mouse action thriller pitting Rogue and Crawford against each other, it squanders most of its time on the rival crime gangs, neither of which are established as being anything intriguing or compelling. Notwithstanding that, but WAR does a painfully insipid job of trying to explore the motivations behind Rogue’s actions. Why, after all, would Rogue become so disingenuous and disloyal to both crime organizations and why would he resort to such complex schemes to exact revenge against both?
Your guess is as good as mine.
This complaint also bares some weight when one considers that the character of Rogue has to be one of the most banal and disinteresting killers in recent movie history. As played by the dramatically stunted Li, there is not one ounce of three-dimensionality to him. He’s not a character, but a soulless and colorless plot device that never commands our interest. Action films, it has been said, are only as good as their villains, and Rogue is such an unmitigated bore as a character that you often have to slap yourself upside the head and remind yourself that he’s important. How can you have a rooting interest in the heroes when your villain is a bland and characterless drone?
Perhaps this has something to do with Jet Li, an action star that I admire for his physicality, but have had a difficult time appreciating on a level of acting skill. I certainly have truly liked many of his native language films (last year’s FEARLESS showed a mature and powerful performance by Li, both in terms of drama and action), but I have yet to see an American film where he was not reduced to a one-note, emotionless, monosyllabic cardboard cutout. I am not sure if this has to do with his lack of command of the English language or his actual thespian skills, but Li has shown himself to be so categorically awful in his performances in US films. Yes, other martial arts stars, like Jackie Chan, speak in broken English, but at least Chan brings charisma, whimsicality, and charm to his performances. There is none of that with Li, who is reduced to a walking robot in WAR; his performance is done with minimal effort and fuss, just enough for him to be audible to audience members. Sure, when he’s in fight scenes, Li is a commanding screen presence, but beyond that he's as stiff and wooden as a surf board.
I could go on and on about the other areas where this film fails. The action, although energetic at times, is sloppy and spastic, and director Philip G. Atwell (a music video vet) never seems to create any sense of rhythm and coherence. The best way to shoot these scenes is to use a less-is-more approach and let the physicality of the actors sell the action, not the MTV video inspired editing and camera work. Statham, who is a fiery and cagey action star or remarkable dexterity, is more or less subdued and has very little opportunities to display his athletic skills (although compared to Li, he’s Laurence freakin’ Oliver in the acting arena). Again, these two action stars are done a terrible disservice of never really playing off of one another. Their climatic fight scene is so hastily and quickly concluded that you shake your hands in the air and scream, “And?”
Of course, there is the film’s would-be plot twist, which I will not reveal to you here, but I will say that it unalterably betrays everything that occurs before it, not to mention that it makes you question a lot of the motives of one of the main characters. A much more simpler and satisfying conclusion would have been to simply make the third act a stirring and action packed battle between Rogue and Crawford without any other narrative baggage. When we learn of Rogue’s true heritage, it never really feels plausible. Certainly, smart viewers could also see it coming if one thought hard about the film’s underlining story, but the terms "thinking hard” should not be used in the same sentence when describing WAR.
I ever so desperately wanted WAR to be a blissful symphony of wall-to-wall carnage and maddening, comic book gravity defying violence that made other Statham action films such a giddy pleasure. Instead of being entertaining and enjoyably incredulous with its action spectacle, WAR is just incredulously horrible. By failing to fully utilize the combined martial arts talents of Statham and Li, and by involving them in a long-winded and torturously dreary and tired storyline of rival crime gangs, WAR is disappointingly boring and lethargic. If you decide to focus on story and characters, then make those elements intriguing. If you decide to go for broke and have a considerable amount of gratuitous martial arts mayhem, then don’t hold back. Unfortunately, WAR is both a regrettable failure from both a narrative and action level and will surely inspire monumental dissatisfaction for even hard-core action fans.
The film, in the simplest terms, is like Michael Mann's HEAT...for dummies.