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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS -- DVD review by porfle

Director Jacob Cheung stages a sweeping epic of ancient warfare and political intrigue with BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS, aka A Battle of Wits (2006). Despite the somewhat cheesy-sounding new title, this is amazing, superbly-mounted filmmaking on a grand scale, yet the human drama is strong enough not to be overshadowed by the visual opulence.

In the Warring States Era of China circa 370 B.C., the walled city of Liang comes under siege by the vastly superior forces of the conquering Zhao army. In desperation, Liang turns to the Mozi, legendary peacekeeping warriors who are experts at defense, for help. They send one man, Ge Li (Andy Lau).

Ge Li's brilliant tactics allow Liang to defeat the Zhao and drive them into retreat, but Ge Li's growing popularity with the people prompts the despicable king (Zhiwen Wang) to order his execution under false charges. Ge Li escapes with some of his followers, then returns when Liang falls to a surprise second invasion from the Zhao.

Renowned Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, who recently did a fine job as an aging drug kingpin in PROTEGE, makes Ge Li into a heroic and admirable character whose goal is to bring peace to the warring factions. Thus his betrayal by the duplicitous, egotistical king and the subsequent atrocities committed against those loyal to Ge Li are the stuff of classic tragedy.

This is compounded by a doomed love affair between him and a female cavalry officer named Yi Yue (Fan Bingbing), who bitterly rebukes the king and is also sentenced to death. Others who rebel against Ge Li's treatment and suffer the consequences are master archer General Niu Zi Zhang (Siu Ho Chin) and Prince Liang Shi himself (Korean pop star Siu Ho Chin).

As an action film, BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS becomes somewhat anticlimactic about halfway through, right after the battle sequence between the Zhao and the hopelessly outnumbered Liang. As a tragic romance, character study, and political thriller, it remains compelling to the end. Ge Li's relationship with Zhao commander Xiang Yan-zhong (Sung-kee Ahn) is especially interesting--they're rational men who can see warfare for the game that it is, which allows Ge Li to suggest a dispassionate resolution for the commander to consider. Such reason, however, is beyond the king, who continues to use violence and terror to preserve his power.

For me, though, the best part is the siege that takes place during the first half of the film. Part RETURN OF THE KING, part THE ALAMO, with a SEVEN SAMURAI vibe running through it as well, it's a stunning battle sequence using a full-scale set of the walled city and thousands of extras and horses--the kind of exhilarating, old-fashioned epic filmmaking that you just don't see enough of anymore. The Zhao attack is fierce, and Ge Li's amazingly clever strategies for driving them back and finally defeating them are thrilling. (The only drawback, naturally, is some hinky CGI that pops up here and there.) A couple of subsequent battle scenes in the latter half of the film--including the rather fanciful sight of enemy warriors floating over the city's walls in little hot air balloons--are there mainly to serve the story and don't generate nearly as much excitement.

Director Cheung keeps the camera moving with a succession of impressive shots, and the cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is fine. Opulent set design and authentic costumes add to the visual splendor. The musical score by Kenji Kawai is powerful and evocative.

Dragon Dynasty presents the film on a single disc in 2.35:1 widescreen with Mandarin Dolby 5.1 and English Dolby 5.1 sound. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. Bonus features consist of a lengthy featurette, "The Making of Battle of the Warriors", and an informative commentary track by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan.

With Andy Lau's fine lead performance, technical excellence in all areas, and a story that combines rich human drama with some of the most awe-inspiring battle scenes of recent years, BATTLE OF THE WARRIORS is an intense and memorable film.

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