Dir: Philip G. Atwell. US. 2007. 103mins.
A sturdy B-movie thriller with enough style to overcome its formulaic trappings, War finds mid-level action stars Jet Li and Jason Statham riffing on their already established personas to winning effect. A needlessly elaborate plot somewhat spoils the pairing of these martial-arts icons, but genre fans should be satisfied by the amount of R-rated violence and the film's kinetic sheen.
This Lionsgate release opened last weekend in the US to an estimated $10m box-office, a respectable haul which puts it on par with both men's recent box-office history. With the exception of Hero, Li has not had a film break $50m domestically in the last seven years, and Statham's biggest hit as a leading man was 2005's Transporter 2, which only collected $43m domestically.
With The Bourne Ultimatum still showing ample life, and Shoot 'Em Up waiting in the wings, War will probably be lucky to cross $30m in the US before transitioning to DVD, where it will strongly appeal to young men. While Statham's films tend to bring in more business in America, Li's do better in international markets, where War will open in September and continue to expand around the globe through the rest of the year, notably Japan in October.
FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) has sworn to avenge his partner's death at the hands of a mysterious assassin named Rogue (Jet Li). Three years later, Crawford's chance arrives when Rogue resurfaces in Crawford's hometown of San Francisco. But while Crawford tries to uncover the man's whereabouts, Rogue has his own agenda: For reasons unknown, he has betrayed the Asian Yakuza mob, and has sworn allegiance to its rivals in the Triads, hunting down and killing Yakuza members.
War , the feature debut of video director Philip G. Atwell, plays like a less operatic version of Michael Mann's Heat, in which two acting legends (in that case, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro) face off on opposite sides of the law, although rarely appearing onscreen at the same time. In War, much of the anticipation comes from the inevitable meeting between Li and Statham, and like with Heat, a tense mid-film interaction sets the stage for a final confrontation.
The script, written by Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley, does a commendable job in dramatizing these rather stock characters. Crawford is a hard-as-nails cop with a sense of duty and obligation who shows a softer side around his ex-wife, while Rogue is a terse, aloof killer whose nagging code of ethics suggests an unwavering nobility existing underneath. While neither character is brilliantly drawn, sometimes speaking in laughably expositional dialogue, the writers provide enough emotional underpinnings so that the audience sees beyond their tough-guy demeanour.
Atwell gives War a sleek look, moving the story from throbbing nightclubs to elegant mansions without imposing an obnoxiously flashy music-video aesthetic. In addition, his direction stays faithful to bare-bones B-movie conventions. Instead of being showy or trying to elevate the well-worn cops-and-mobsters material, he delivers the action with as little fuss as possible, realizing that Statham and Li's physical skills are more important than his own camera angles.
While both actors, last seen together in the 2001 sci-fi film The One, may have a limited range, they project the necessary amounts of hard-boiled cool. Statham's machismo is as effortless as his graceful work in the movie's fight scenes, and Li (whose English remains unpolished) captures his character's eerie calm and silent menace through sheer presence, projecting an imposing figure despite his short stature.
Unfortunately, the script gets bogged down in a jumbled game of wavering loyalties as Rogue begins to pit rival gang members against each other. Consequently, War is best enjoyed by ignoring who's double-crossing whom and instead concentrating on the film's plentiful and violent action sequences, which are a welcome respite from the twisty logistics of Rogue's plan.
Atwell attacks the fight scenes, which involve gunplay and the occasional sword battle, with a bloody enthusiasm which may lack the bravura of some of the summer's best action sequences but are nevertheless dynamic and pleasingly nasty. And War also sports an ending plot twist that, while perhaps bordering on ludicrous, is surprisingly satisfying, upending B-movie notions of honour and bravery in unexpected ways.
Mosaic Media Group
Joseph P. Genier
Lee Anthony Smith
Gregory J. Bradley
Mathew St. Patrick