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Call of Heroes
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by Jay Seaver

"Who's not going to enjoy an all-star kung fu spaghetti western?"
4 stars

It took me a shamefully long time to recognize what filmmaker Benny Chan Muk-Sing was up to with "Call of Heroes", because while samurai movies and westerns tend to cross-pollinate in one way, kung fu usually mixes with westerns by having Chinese people show up in the American West. A movie like this - more or less a spaghetti western that has been picked up and dropped straight into Guangdong - is something else and a whole ton of fun.

It's 1914, and China is the scene of fighting between warlords, with Cao Ying the worst of them. Teacher Bai Ling (Maggie Jiang Shu-Ying) is leading a half-dozen orphans away to the capital of Guangzhou, but after being caught in a robbery at a roadside restaurant, they arrive at Pucheng, where Sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) prevails on the villagers to let the refugees stay. Also arriving: Wang Meihu (Xing Yu) and his team of mercenaries hired by Boss Liu (Xie Ning), as well as wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen), who foiled the robbery - and, later, the warlord's sociopathic son, Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo Tin-Lok). Yang and the rest of his guardians arrest Shaolun for murder, but are delivered an ultimatum to release Shaolun or have Colonel Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) attack.

So you've got your sheriff, taunted by a lunatic languishing in a jail as the more competent member of his gang lays siege, the wandering fighter who rides in to serve as a wildcard, the pretty schoolteacher, a bar fight, something that can reasonably pass as a stagecoach, all that good stuff. It's the Chinese equivalent, by and large - nobody's wearing cowboy hats and only Shaolun favors the gun rather than martial arts - but there are no Shaolin monks wearing long queues or hidden martial arts schools. Director of photography Pakie Chan Chor-Keung (apparently working in native 3D) frequently goes to widescreen shots of Pucheng nestled in a green valley, and the score by Wong Kin-Wai shows more and more like Morricone influence as the film goes on.

The roles fit the all-star cast very well indeed. Louis Koo, for instance, is often at his best when he gets to be a bit nasty rather than an upright leading man, and he goes full psycho here, not just nuts but aware enough of his cruelty to twist the knife. He matches up well with Lau Ching-Wan, who gives Yang an unforced rectitude and handles the self-deprecating humor well. Eddie Peng is more there for martial-arts, but he's got an enjoyable, laid-back charm, and Wu Jing brings a great combination of menace and honor to Zhang. The film is also filled with fun work by actors in smaller roles - the film implies enough backstory for Yang's wife Zhou Susu (Yolanda Yuan Quan) for another movie, for instance, and gives everybody just enough individuality that the audience isn't waiting for things to get to the obvious groups to square off.

They will, of course, with action choreographed by Sammo Hung and his stunt team filling out the bigger battle scenes. Chan and Hung do a great job of making the fights creative and occasionally off-the-wall without quite leaving the bounds of reality - the immediate lead-in to a fight on a bridge savors the moment the audience spends asking why someone would ever build this thing that way before just jumping into it. It's fast-paced and clear in a way that really pops when watching this after a lesser action movie, striking a sweet-spot between larger-than-life and crazy wire-fu shenanigans. The movie gets mean on occasion, just enough to shock, but it seldom stops being fun.

And it's a lot of fun, the best parts of both freewheeling westerns and martial-arts action movies, with a pretty great cast and slick production. For some reason, it didn't get the sort of simultaneous North American release many big Chinese movies have received in recent years, and that's really too bad - it's a fun mash-up that feels like it would have been a real kick on the big screen.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33550&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/04/20 01:16:28
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USA
  N/A
  DVD: 06-Dec-2016

UK
  02-Sep-2016 (15)

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Benny Chan

Written by
  Benny Chan
  Wai Ching Tam
  Chun Wong

Cast
  Ching Wan Lau
  Eddie Peng
  Louis Koo
  Jing Wu
  Quan Yuan
  Shuying Jiang



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