I sat down to Call Of Heroes eager to see the action direction from legendary film star Sammo Hung. And let it be a testament to bloated expectations that about twenty minutes in, I thought I was going to be disappointed. Allow me to explain. It’s the thing with wuxia for me, fantasy based martial arts that succeeds or fails like the extremes of a pendulum. It’s either choreographed so well that it’s awesome, or it reaches the level of standard and, sadly, you are made so uncomfortably aware of wires and post production work that the crew might as well be on camera in the scene.
Call Of Heroes threatened, at first, to arrive like the infamous latter.
I remember liking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny much more than the first one (and probably because of the welcome absence of scenes like the tree “fight” notable much less for relative realism than for their beautifiscent though aggressively absurd depiction). It worked great in the Ip Man series, as symbolic of our real world romanticization of the past, and of a man whose life is so celebrated that he becomes legendary.
This also worked well for Roy Chow’s Rise Of The Legend, for which, in fact, shares Heroes’ star in the talented Eddie Peng.
After six year old Puyi, China’s last emperor, formally abdicated the throne in February of 1912, it marked the end of the Qing dynasty, and the tumultuous time during which the film is set. The story picks up here, beginning with a prologue setting up the historical backdrop.
The son of the warlord general Cao Ying, Junior Commandant Cho Siu-lun, played by Louis Koo, takes advantage of the tumultuous times. He pillages for fun, murders women and children to the cackle of laughter. He is basically a Chinese Joker, with a literal army at his disposal.
A woman, played by the lovely Zeng Li, just barely escapes one of Cho’s brutal escapades with a group of school children. She flees Pucheng to take refuge in what she hopes will be a safe haven. She is only partially right; Around this point is when Eddie Peng shows up, a wandering drunk who becomes a reluctant defender after literally coasting blindly into the midst of conflict.
At the head of Pucheng is Yeung Hak-nan, played by Sean Lau. He’s the sheriff. He’s badass. And he fights with a whip.
He is a man with a strict moral code, and a devotion to justice. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, yes, he IS kind of like the film’s Batman. But only in the spirit of contrast to the Junior Commandant. There is a pivotal scene during which the sheriff and Peng’s Ma Fung have a talk while Yeung doubles as Fung’s barber. As he tends, thankfully, to the cartoonishly fake beard, he talks of his code with muted passion, setting up not only the basis of his central conflict as the film progresses, but also sparking a series of talks the two will have as reflections of the film’s proceedings. They become, in this way – and in retrospect – voices of commentary on right and wrong, on the paradox of being right and yet still being wrong, and vice versa. It’s a morality struggle set to the music of hair raising fights.
But what about Fung? When he arrives in the story, he saves the traveling woman from bandits only to later deny her plea to hire him as a bodyguard. He has a past that is hinted at, which is par the course for wandering characters in epic stories. Peng strikes a careful balance though between aloof charisma and innate heroism. His talks with sheriff Yueng evince strong character in him, which is right at home for Peng – picking up from his success playing Wong Fei Hung in Rise Of The Legend.
Action star Wu Jing from Kill Zone 2 makes an appearance as an otherwise reluctant antagonist in the role of Cheung Yik, Cho’s lieutenant. He has a past with Fung, which becomes important later on as sides are chosen and the fighting ensues. When Cho visits Pucheng alone, he brings his air of entitlement with him. He murders three people in cold blood but then immediately shrinks to cowardly deference when set upon by sheriff Yueng, who intends to execute him in the morning for his crime. Despite name, despite title. Cheung intervenes, warning that he will return with an army to burn down the province and kill all its people should a hair on the Junior Commandant’s head be harmed. And by then we’re off to the races.
Though the sheriff is committed to seeking justice, this commitment puts the people of Pucheng in danger of reprisal. And they take exception with their lives being gambled with. They even plead with sheriff Yueng to let the prisoner go. However, as anyone can tell by the disposition of the Junior Commandant, and with it his brutal frivolities, the people do not have a choice to either let him go or perish. Rather, their choice is to either bow to a corrupt warlord or fight to defend their home and their honor. It bears mention that I like the original title of the film, “The Deadly Reclaim”, because it captures the soul of the narrative. But the new title, interestingly enough, elucidates the central theme.
The villain… give this guy a baseball bat and he’s Negan from The Walking Dead. Only, he’s a coward; but an evil, spoiled, and resourceful one. His flippant behavior concerned me at first, much like the wuxia, but everything fell right into place as the story picked up speed.
I was more and more impressed by Sammo Hung’s action craftsmanship as the fights got progressively more intense. The more serious things got, the faster the fights, the more display of various weapons and fighters. Every transition felt fresh, every battle a push forward in the narrative.
Director Benny Chan’s work is seamless. I was at once a fan of cinematography, and the way the camera caresses the illustrious vistas. Rolling mountains beneath skies heavy and pregnant with blue, period locations, villages and wardrobe near the consistency of an animated film about the time come to life.
The special features offered on DVD provide a look at everything from the set up of Pucheng City to the fight choreography of the various actors. All worth a view for any stunt and/or martial arts connoisseur.
As for owning it, I’d say shelf it right alongside you favorites in the genre. –Khalil Barnett