Usually when a movie does not make an advance copy available to reviewers, it’s not a good sign. Mrs. Speculator is a big fan of Jason Statham and I like his work, and we both have enjoyed Jet Li’s work for a while as well, so we had been looking forward to the release of their latest film, War, for some weeks. However, when I couldn’t find any reviews of the film on Friday to accompany my quest for a theatre, little warning bells started going off in my head. But we persevered, finding the film, and gambled that it would be worthwhile.
And I am happy to report that it is. Although the commercials and trailers make it seem that the movie is an endless parade of fight scenes, it turns out that the movie has a lot more in common with traditional Asian theater than chop-socky movies, though there is a liberal sprinkling of martial arts action. But those fight scenes serve more to advance the plot of the movie than the other way around—and perhaps that is the real joy of the movie: there is a plot with not one but two very nice twists at the end that, with hindsight, are well set-up but are still sharp surprises for the average movie-goer.
Jason Statham plays Jack Crawford, an FBI agent who lost his partner to a legendary assassin named Rogue, who is renowned for using plastic surgery to change his face every six months. Of course, Rogue is incredibly wealthy because of his skill at his job, so it’s easy for him to change identities as well, all of which makes him a near-supernatural figure whose legend inspires awe in whoever seeks to thwart him. Of course, Rogue is played by Jet Li, who maintains that same sort of legend for martial arts fans. Three years after Crawford’s partner and family are killed, Rogue shows up again in San Francisco, playing a pivotal role in an impending gang war between the local Triad and the Yakuza. But something is off: Rogue appears to be playing both sides against each other, deliberately inciting the war, and Crawford is being personally taunted by Rogue.
Now let’s get this straight: neither Statham nor Li are renowned for the breadth of their acting range and this movie clearly does not push their boundaries. But the movie really is driven by its plot, developing slowly as we watch Rogue more often provoke other people into fighting one another than fighting for himself. And when he does fight, he is a flurry of action, rapidly dispatching his opponents instead of dragging the fight out solely for the pleasure of the audience. As Statham pursues Rogue and tries to unravel the mystery of Rogue’s actions, he engages in a little western-style fisticuffs. And, unlike recent action movies, the fight scenes and chases are choreographed so that the viewer can actually follow the action rather than feel like he has witnessed Generic Fight Scene X.
The movie also spends time dealing with the networks of all the players involved, except Rogue who repeats a number of times that he has no master and thus no network of his own. The members of the Triad, the Yakuza and Crawford’s FBI task force are given more personality and dialogue than the traditional flat characters of martial arts movies, adding sub-plots that add depth to the movie. The machinations within those networks play an important part in the outcome of the main plot, so it’s not just filler fluff. It also gives some pretty good Asian character actors some screen time.
Of course, everything builds up to the final showdown between Statham and Li with the two big reveals playing important parts in the climax. But that climax is just much an emotional climax as it is the Big Fight. In fact, the Big Fight might actually be the one between Rogue and the Yakuza head, played by long-time character actor Ryo Ishibashi.
War is an entertaining movie, as much cerebral as action-based, but not terribly cerebral. And it is not brilliant by any means, but it’s good and it is fun. It’s worth the cost of a matinee.
BUT. Look, this film is rated R for a reason. There’s a lot of coarse language, though not the worst I have ever heard. And because some of it is in another language, it gets spelled out across the bottom of the screen. There’s also nudity and violence, and violence while nude. This is not intended for anyone under 17, and I don’t care if an adult is accompanying the minor. We had two children about 12 years old in front of us, and few rows further down was a child of about six. I’m not going to rant about personal choices, and at least the kids weren’t screaming in terror, but it really just wasn’t appropriate. And yes, when I was 17, I knew what all those words meant too. Doesn’t matter.