Enjoyable period film from Benny Chan with big stars, terrific action sequences and a ridiculously over-the-top performance from Louis Koo. As current Hong Kong Cinema goes, Call of Heroes deserves a solid “thumbs up” and two hours of your time.
Arguably Hong Kong’s most consistent action filmmaker. Benny Chan follows up his Heroic Bloodshed homage The White Storm with another nostalgic genre fix. Call of Heroes is a rousing and uncomplicated throwback to Shaw Brothers-era martial arts actioners, with a simple story, righteous heroes, a diabolical villain and terrific action sequences. Also, the stars and their performances are nearly top notch. Nearly. Louis Koo plays the super bad guy of the piece. A warlord’s son who has no regard for human life and toys with his foes with pronounced sadistic glee. Koo makes his character dangerous but also very campy, with unchecked evil laughter and overdone mugging among his acting lowlights. Benny Chan doesn’t rein in his star, resulting in one of Koo’s more egregious overacting performances. But when the worst thing about a movie is that a handsome tanned guy overacts, that sounds like a win. Doesn’t it?
On the surface, Call of Heroes (Nguy Thanh Tiem Ba) resembles the 1959 Hollywood western Rio Bravo. About a righteous lawman (John Wayne) who imprisons a gunman but then has to contend with his evil outlaw brother. In Call of Heroes, the John Wayne stand-in is Lau Ching-Wan, who turns in a rock-steady performance as a whip-wielding man of unquestioned integrity.
The setting is China during the Age of the Warlords. And Sheriff Yang Kenan (Lau) protects the town of Pucheng from bandits and thugs. However, evil bastard Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo). The son of warlord Cao Ying, wanders into town and promptly commits some nasty crimes. He’s thrown in jail, but Shaolun’s lackey Colonel Zhang Yi (Wu Jing or Ngo Kinh) arrives to free his boss. Kenan says “no” but that’s fine by Shaolun. The villain has a game in mind: He wants to humiliate Kenan by forcing him to personally surrender. Kenan won’t play along because he knows that Shaolun can’t be trusted.
As the title announces, there are multiple heroes. Besides Yang Kenan. There are his deputies, one of whom is played by Sammy Hung (action director Sammo Hung’s son). As well as Yang’s wife Zhou Susu (Yolanda Yuan), who at one point wields too halves of a woven basket like a pair of iron fans. However, the bad guys have a supreme martial arts master in Zhang Yi. So the good guys need the help of Ma Feng (Eddie Peng). A wandering rogue who’s so carefree that he travels around wearing a blindfold and trusts his horse Taiping (“Peace”) to take him interesting places.
The sloppy, cocky Ma Feng claims to not want to get involve. But usually does anyway because he’s righteous and so awesome that even dogs instantly like him. Ma Feng has swagger coming out of his ears, and Eddie Peng is very fun in the role. It’s not really an exceptional performance, as Peng’s acting is sometimes too self-aware. But Peng’s got the looks and charisma to play casually cool screen heroes.
Tensions exist on multiple fronts. Zhang Yi gives Yang Kenan until morning to free Cao Shaolun. And there’s conflict within the village over whether or not to capitulate. Meanwhile, Ma Feng is pressured by schoolteacher Miss Bai (Maggie Jiang) to help out, but he also has a hidden connection to Zhang Yi. We eventually receive flashbacks that flesh out Zhang Yi and Ma Feng’s current roles as badass mercenary and carefree ronin, respectively, though the revelations aren’t striking or surprising.
Benny Chan may be a competent action filmmaker but his work with theme and character is only a shade above routine. If even that. Still, the story rarely gets pretentious (e.g., no overblown commentary on humanity or jiang hu) and few actors besides Louis Koo and Liu Kai-Chi (as Yang Kenan’s lieutenant) overdo it. The main theme that’s pushed is “One lives through one’s conscience” – not exactly a new idea but one that serves the characters and the genre well. What Call of Heroes puts on the table works easily in its favor.
The action and martial art film (phim hanh dong vo thuat) also offers a few nihilistic moments to pump up the emotion. And some minor bits of comedy – mostly involving Ma Feng. That aren’t stretch out or embarrassing. Anyway, Call of Heroes is all about its action, which pretty much overwhelms the picture. There’s lots of wirework and some obvious doubling – many of the stars are not martial artists. But Sammo Hung’s choreography is fast, creative and varied. Besides hand-to-hand combat between Wu Jing and Eddie Peng. There’s whip action from Lau Ching-Wan and kinetic gunplay from Louis Koo, who wields a pimped-up, gold-plated handgun like a gangbanger, and proves to be a surprisingly formidable foe.
The film’s climax is lengthy with an excellent mix of exhilarating action, rousing emotion and sudden reversals of fortune. The visual effects could be better but nearly everything else about Call of Heroes is enjoyable or at least unobjectionable.. In lieu of a Shaw Brothers revival, Call of Heroes will do just fine.