Film Review: God of War

Ming soldiers battle Japanese pirates in a rousing period adventure from Hong Kong veteran Gordon Chan.
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A large-scale adventure with an above-average script, God of War could be the best Asian historical epic since John Woo's Red Cliff. Gordon Chan's direction breathes new life into a genre that's often marked by bombast and tedium.

A dense opening introduces several factions trying to claim the Chinese coast in the mid-16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. Japanese samurai led by Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata) have established a foothold near the town of Taizhou. A younger, impetuous samurai, Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide), wants to grab inland territory. The son of an aristocrat, he's also appalled at the manners of the thousands of ronin Kumasawa has hired.

Ming commander Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) has besieged a pirate command post for months, but hasn't been able to break past their superior weaponry. The Zhejiang magistrate brings in Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao), a young general with new ideas. He and his men destroy the command post but fall victim to a ruse that lets the pirate leaders and most of their men escape.

Yu is imprisoned, and Qi faces death unless he captures the pirates. He forms a new army of 3,000 impoverished miners and villagers to fight the 20,000 Japanese. The seriously undermanned Ming soldiers must then fend off a three-pronged attack by the pirates who are on the verge of taking control of Zhejiang.

Yes, that's a lot of plot, and a lot of characters, to follow, to say nothing of keeping track of the feuds, tantrums and deceptions that afflict the leads. But Chan, a Hong Kong veteran who has been directing films for 30 years, is a master at orchestrating complex passages clearly and precisely, so viewers are always aware what's at stake.

And his leads are all fully rounded characters with flaws and mixed motives. Yu may be trapped in the past, but he understands politics better than Qi. Kumasawa's methods baffle his followers, but follow a logic that doesn't become evident until his enemies are doomed.

Qi is an especially intriguing hero. He's humiliated in front of his men by his diminutive wife (Wan Qian), tricked by the Zhejiang magistrate and ridiculed by his opponents. And yet he remains firmly, believably unshakeable in his goals. Zhao is weirdly phlegmatic as the general, an approach that pays off once Chan unleashes the climax's martial-arts sequences.

God of War eventually boils down to the mano-a-mano fights that bedevil the genre, but here too Chan's experience helps elevate the encounters. The director uses handheld cameras to get close to the action, and edits the footage so that fights spill out of the frame into streets and alleys, up stairs, onto rooftops.

The movie's massive scale is especially impressive when compared to Hollywood's tendency to depict armies through special effects. Fans of the genre will be especially grateful to see Zhao making an impressive comeback and the legendary Sammo Hung living up to expectations.

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