Although He Ping's "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" has a lyrical title that makes it sound as if it's yet another soaringly graceful martial arts epic, it's surprisingly a horse of a different color. Make that "Old Paint," a Western horse.
Ever since Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Sammurai" (1954), which was remade in the U.S. six years later as "The Magnificent Seven," Western lovers have become more aware of Far Eastern "Westerns" that are shot in remote provinces and incorporate some of the same conventions as the American horse-and-saddle genre. He Ping's epic adventure follows in that tradition.
As men on horseback (and camelback) ride the Silk Road, with its rugged desert mountains looking as if they could be part of John Ford's Monument Valley, you can't help but think of the Santa Fe Trail. As whooping Turks ride circles around the Chinese in an all-out attack, it's hard not to think of the way that Plains Indians have been portrayed in Hollywood. It's also familiar territory to have Japanese warrior Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi) ordered to clean up the Western provinces by hunting down fugitives. The only thing really different about it is that this bounty hunter isn't so much a mercenary as he is forced by the emperor to "get his man." And colorful characters of the mangled, Gabby Hayes sort? They're here in spades: Old Diehard, One Eye, Ma Gun, Baldy, and a youngster who's not fit to join the group, called (no, not "grasshopper") Salamander. But the real kicker is that there are corals and chink-chink-chink showdowns with swords instead of six-shooters and a bandit leader who runs a remote town. Or, as one of his men puts it, "Master An is boss here."
As with any Ford Western, the rugged West itself is as important as the action, and with Zhao Fei's stunning cinematography we get the same feeling in "Warriors of Heaven and Earth." It's the 8th century, and the Tang empire stretches far and wide, making it as hard to protect and govern as those remote outposts in the American West. The Chinese had to battle constantly with nomadic Turks and bandits for control of the Silk Road. I'm not so sure about Heaven or Earth, but this is a tale of two warriors, both of them good guys but one of them a fugitive.
Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen) had to go on the run after he was ordered to execute Turkish prisoners and refused to kill women and children. A revolt ensued, and he was forced to fight and kill the emperor's soldiers. Along with the men who fought by his side, he was forced to head west and make a living guarding camel trains. Now, he's the last fugitive that Lai Xi has been ordered to track down and kill. Do this, he's told, and he will finally be allowed to return to his native Japan.
Well, pardners, over the span of two hours their paths finally cross, but they also have run-ins with the bandit-boss, Master An (Wang Xueqi), and soldiers of Lord Khan. There's also a female (Zhao Wei) who's along for the ride and may or may not be what she seems, and a monk carrying a precious cargo on a camel train that they decide to protect together and delay their inevitable showdown.
At times, it's not clear why the female is in this film. She's one of two voiceover narrators (the other being Lai Xi), and we're told that her father and Lai Xi were good friends. But she truly does just seem to be along for the ride. In terms of the film's structure, that and a mystical element that comes in near the end in a kind of jarring way are the only missteps. As for the screenplay itself, like American Westerns there's not much in the way of character development. The focus is on the iconic--the traits that make these men warriors of the legendary sort. As a historical epic and Far Eastern Western, it's pretty successful . . . until you find your head snapped by some anachronistic lines that seem to have been written by Tony Soprano. "You're busting my balls," one guy says. In the 8th century? Same with "You better not chicken out," or a moment when everyone crosses their swords in a circle like hands in a football huddle and breaks with NFL crispness.
But there are enough interesting and fun things going on here--especially for lovers of Westerns--that the flaws are easy to overlook.
The SD version looked pretty decent already, but the Blu-ray is still an upgrade. The 2.40:1 aspect ratio allows for the same kind of sweeping panoramic shots as we're used to in epic Westerns. The colors seem well saturated and the black levels allow for strong contrasts even when the scenes are tinged by desert drabness.
The audio is also quite good, with Mandarin PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio the featured soundtrack, and additional audio options in French and English 5.1. With so many subtitle options (English, English SDH, French, Arabic, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Greek, Hindi, Dutch, and Turkish) there's really no excuse for not watching this in the original language--which, as far as I'm concerned, is the only way to enjoy a film like this. One comment on the sound, though. Curiously, most of the sound emanates from the front center and rear speakers, with the left/right main speakers not noticeably involved. I don't think it's a tracking problem, but rather a reflection of the fact that so much of the action is centralized, while the rear speakers pick up the ambient sounds.
Not much here in the way of extras. There's a pre-release promo featurette on "The Making of 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth'" and a music video by Jolin Tsai, "Warriors of Peace." The making-of is all surface fluff, unfortunately, though your most basic questions will probably be answered.
"Warriors of Heaven and Earth" is a solid entry in the genre of Far Eastern Westerns, with strong acting, a decent-enough script, some fun recognizable conventions, and action that's choreographed not to be poetic, but to reflect the grit of the Chinese West of the 8th century.