Wait a minute, there’s a movie that’s Jet Li vs. Jason Statham that I never bothered to watch? How can this happen? Well, I remember I was excited for it when it came out but then everybody said it sucked, and I’ve seen enough generic movies of this type (Statham vs. Snipes in CHAOS) to fear sitting through another boring, lifeless slog that wastes my favorite action stars. Fortunately I think I waited just the right amount of time because while I’d agree it isn’t a proper use of Jet Li that’s not really a crushing surprise anymore, and WAR is more watchable, more of a real movie than what I’d always pictured.
Li gets top billing, but Statham is the protagonist. FBI Agent Crawford specializes in Asian organized crime and is obsessively on the trail of a CIA asset turned assassin known as Rogue (Li). Rogue seems to have been hired both by the Triads and the Yakuzas, he’s been massacring both sides and playing them against each other while seemingly representing either Chang (John Lone, RUSH HOUR 2) or Shiro (Ryo Ishibashi, AMERICAN YAKUZA, BROTHER) and his daughter (Devon Aoki, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS) who are trying to expand their operations in the U.S. by selling a priceless horse statue. You know what, I was thinking the title WAR is pretty generic, I wonder if they considered something cool like HORSE SALE, I bet that would’ve been an intriguing name for action fans.
I’m not saying I’m a marketing genius or anything, but you guys are free to say it if you want. Anyway, the gangs are all killing each other, so that’s the titulescent war.
Let me try to list some of the cop movie cliches that are in this. There’s the partner who’s very close and has a nice family that gets murdered. There’s the early implication that the bad guys knew about a bust so there’s gotta be a leak from within. There’s the assassin who’s so elusive some think he’s an urban legend but Crawford stubbornly stays on the case. The assassin leaves a calling card that lets Crawford know he’s still active. He ruins his marriage by being too obsessed with the job but still cares about the ex-wife and talks to her on the phone even though she’s exasperated with him.
And there’s not that much in the way of uniqueness to add flavor to that, but here is one tiny little part I liked. One of Crawford’s partners (Mathew St. Patrick, STEEL SHARKS), when serving a search warrant to a gangster, keeps almost handing it to him and then pulling it away and then almost handing it to him, like a schoolyard bully. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a movie before, and it cracked me up.
I must acknowledge WAR for proper use of action tradition in the scene where Shiro is in a samurai outfit at home practicing sword fighting with one of his Yakuza minions. Firstly, it’s a good “just how evil is he?” scene, the scene where the bad guy does something terrible to one of his own men. Secondly, it is indeed set up for him to have a sword duel toward the end of the movie. Respect.
Sung Kang plays another one of Crawford’s partners, a marksman who backs him up. He’s cool but doesn’t get to do as much as you’d hope. At this point he’d been in TOKYO DRIFT, but it’s two years before FAST AND FURIOUS, so Han was still unknown to most people. I actually wondered if he was supposed to be a red herring just because he’s of Korean descent so you wouldn’t know which gang he’d side with.
Luis Guzman is treated better, he gets a nice sleazy location (he’s a guy who puts on small time cage fights) and a good reveal. Also Saul Rubinek has a small Saul Rubinek part and apparently Kane Kosugi and Lauro Chartrand (director of Seagal’s BORN TO RAISE HELL) are both in here somewhere.
Statham is standard issue Statham, intense and cool and capable of being mean, like when he pushes shrapnel into a guy with his finger to try to make him talk. He does get to fight Li at the end, but mostly it’s a shoot guns, drive a muscle car type of role for him.
Li makes a good Rogue, but Rogue is not a good use of Li. We don’t rent a Jet Li movie to see the back of his ears as he goes around shooting people. Corey Yuen (who directed Li in FONG SAI YUK and many others, Statham in THE TRANSPORTER and Aoki in DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE) is the second unit director and fight choreographer, but it’s not a heavy martial arts movie. Of course you don’t expect an American movie like this to be FIST OF LEGEND, but what about hoping Li’s role will compare to LETHAL WEAPON 4? It seemed like he fought more in that one, and even his posture and poses projected his history as a master of kung fu. Here he’s mostly a fearless guy with guns (and dogs like him, judging from one of his more imaginative kills). It’s a role that doesn’t require one of the great screen martial artists. I guess it does help in that we know of his skills and that makes him more menacing than he would be just based on his looks. But really this is a better role for wasting Chow Yun Fat.
I guess at that time Li was resigned to not being exactly a martial arts star anymore. As he put it:
“I said [FEARLESS is] the last martial arts film, because martial arts in my mind is totally different. The Chinese character, how they write about martial arts is to stop war… But later on we take out the art, we only fight, fight, fight. Show the violence only. So I told it very clearly in that film. But this kind of film, an action film, I will continue playing [these characters and] making action films. Action – just action. You can find a lot of physical contact, fights, street fight. In my own heart it’s not about art. It’s a different type of movie.”
There is a IMPLIED SPOILER crazy twist that goes a long way toward redeeming the movie in my opinion. It’s completely far-fetched and uses a major cheat that they try to excuse just by pointing it out in a line of dialogue. But I don’t got a problem with crazy. It’s ambitious, it makes what’s been going on alot more interesting, it’s ballsy in the way it pulls the rug out from under you, and it even sets up what could’ve been kind of a cool movie series. But if they wanted it to have sequels maybe they should’ve called it something more distinctive than WAR, even if it’s not HORSE SALE. I know it was originally supposed to be called ROGUE, but the giant crocodile movie from the director of the WOLF CREEKs go there first. It’s too bad because I think it’s too vague of a title for that movie and that might be part of why not enough people know it. On the other hand it would’ve fit this story and genre pretty good. I can picture ROGUE 2 before WAR 2.
The cinematographer is Pierre Morel, who had cinematographied Statham in THE TRANSPORTER and Li in UNLEASHED. The next year he directed TAKEN (although he’d already done DISTRICT B13).
Director Philip G. Atwell hasn’t done any other features, but he co-directed videos with Dr. Dre and wrote MURDER WAS THE CASE: THE MOVIE. Dre and RZA are credited with “additional music.” So if you’re keeping track, martial arts legends who RZA has scored for include Jet Li, Tony Jaa, Michelle Yeoh (in BABYLON A.D.), Wesley Snipes, himself, and Forest Whitaker.
Atwell also directed TURBO CHARGED PRELUDE TO 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, and I suspect he also hangs out with Nic Cage, because he’s been a second unit director three times: NATION TREASURE, NATIONAL TREASURE 2 and THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. I’m sure he’s a cool guy so if I ever met him I would pretend to like WAR more than I actually do. But it was worth watching.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.