Monday, May 29, 2017

God of War: Gen. Qi Versus the Pirates

General Qi Jiguang wrote the book on war and then he wrote the book on drilling armies—they were called The Ji Xiao Xin Shu and Record of Military Training. He was just the man to whip the Ming army into shape and expel the Japanese pirates. Those supposed ruffians and ronin have some high-ranking samurai secretly calling the shots, but they adhere to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which is so Sixth Century BC. Nobody knows better than Qi the failings of the Ming court, yet the revered General always answers the call to service in Gordon Chan’s rip-roaring God of War (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Yes, this will be another film in which the innocent Chinese were minding their own business until the belligerent Japanese launched an imperialist military campaign. At least in this case, some of the Japanese have misgivings regarding the ronin’s rampant pillaging—at least the ones with breeding. Of course, they are not there officially, but thanks to their tactical advice, the pirates have completely bedeviled Gen. Yu Dayou.

Even though Qi’s appointment amounts to a rebuke and a de facto demotion, the two generals earn each other’s respect on the battlefield. Unfortunately, neither of them is good at politics, but Qi is just too good to sideline for long. Crafty old Yamagawa hoped to divide Qi’s forces, by launching three simultaneous attacks, including one on Qi’s home town garrison. However, he did not count on Madame Qi-Wang, an accomplished martial artist in her own right, who will be literally holding down the fort in her husband’s absence.

God of War has several large-scale, blood-and-thunder battle sequences, but it is still surprisingly nimble on its feet. Chan segues quite smoothly from the big, explosive sieges to down-and-dirty hand-to-hand combat scenes. He gets a big assist from Vincent Zhao, who was the perfect choice to anchor the film as Qi. He has always had the martial arts chops, but he is about as big as a movie star can get and still be described as “under-appreciated” for him screen presence. Yet, his solid, dependable Joe persona quite suits Qi, who was known more for his ability to bring out greatness in his troops rather than his own super-human feats.

Nevertheless, Zhao still lays down some spectacular beatdowns on the ronin pirates. He also forges some pleasing chemistry with Regina Wan Qian, as the elegant but lethal Madame Qi-Wang. When Wan gets the chance to show off her action chops, she makes the most of it. She was terrific in The Laundryman and Paradise in Service, but this is the kind of role that should take her to the next level of stardom. As an added bonus, second-billed Master Sammo Hung has a small supporting part as the bull-like Gen. Yu, but he still puts an indelible stamp on the film.

In fact, Hung directly factors in an early sparring scene that is cleverly but not slavishly echoed in the third act. It is a nice, subtle touch from Chan, coming in a genre that more often inspires bombast. Frankly, it shows how reliable Zhao has been, how formidable a force Qian will probably become, and how eternally cool Master Sammo will always be. Highly recommended, God of War opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.