Available on Blu-Ray/ DVD & VoD 2 Jan 2017
It may sound like a chest-beating slice of military American crassness to which Michael Bay may attach his name, but Call of Heroes is actually a welcomingly familiar slice of Hong Kong action, taking its narrative cues from Kurosawa and throwing stylistic elements of spaghetti westerns and classic Wuxia into the mix.
Set in the early part of the last century, the story is a familiar village-under-siege tale of courage and honour, and while legendary choreographer Sammo Hung’s signature blazing-speed showdowns are very much present and correct, Benny Chan’s film is driven by four distinct characters. Sean Lau is Haknan, the village Sheriff, determined to hang Cho (Louis Koo), the psychotic son of a powerful warlord who has just murdered a man, woman and child in the village. Cheung (Wu Jing) is Cho’s lieutenant, ready to kill everyone in the village to liberate his boss. He has a complex past relationship with Ma Fung (Eddie Peng), an itinerant swordsman who’s ended up in the village by chance due to his habit of falling asleep on his horse.
Lau is dignity personified as the Sheriff facing huge odds, while Peng goes full-on Yojimbo, and while no one is going to equal the great Toshiro Mifune, it’s an effective tribute. Sadly, while none of the characters are defined beyond their traits that drive the plot, Koo’s villain lacks any nuance at all. It’s an eye-rolling, lunk-headed display of maniacal laughter, indiscriminate slaughter and screaming petulance. Thankfully, he’s used somewhat sparingly.
The frequent martial arts sequences are all entertaining enough; the actors athleticism combined with whip-crack editing make for some dizzying action. One particular showdown on top of a wobbling mountain of stacked pots is particularly effective. However, the tone Chan aims for shifts like sand beneath the feet depending on the context of the scene. Ma Fung’s opening scene dispatching some inept robbers is played as largely comedic, while Haknan’s desperate brawl to escape a betrayal is a bruising encounter of grim violence.
Despite the uneven tone, the terrible one-note villain and some decidedly ropey CGI, Call of Heroes is a decent, old-fashioned slice of action cinema. The mix of the Far Eastern location with spaghetti western sensibility works well (the two have always shared a fruitful cross-pollination), and while it never threatens to unseat the classics of Kurosawa or Leone, or hit the genre heights of the crazed work of the Shaw Brothers, there is much to enjoy here.