Sunday, October 5, 2008


The Jet Li & Jason Statham urban crime thriller "War" (** out of ****) qualifies as one of their worst. Anybody that saw an earlier Jet Li actioneer—the futuristic science fiction epic "The One" (2001)--knows "War" represents the second time that these two action heroes have shared the screen. In "The One," Statham was confined to a secondary role. In "War," however, Statham shares top billing with 44-year old Jet Li, but the two are never on friendly terms. Instead, Statham wants to terminate Li with extreme prejudice while Li sets out to decimate the entire Japanese Yakuza as well the Chinese Triads in San Francisco. Unfortunately, this one-versus-the-other opus never generates enough heat between its trim but grim co-stars. Surprisingly, they aren't allowed to display their marital arts artistry until the end of the movie and the martial arts action scene itself is incredibly lackluster. Legendary marital arts choreographer Corey Yuen of "The Matrix" trilogy doesn't create any cool looking fights or any new gags that have made him one of the top stunt stagers in either Hollywood or Hong Kong. Most of the time in "War," Jet Li relies on an automatic pistol to gun down the opposition without an expression. Sometimes, he wields a mean razor-edged sword and slices off a head, but you rarely see him do anything equivalent to "Kiss of the Dragon," "Cradle 2 the Grave," or "The One." Similarly, Jason Statham—best known for his "Transporter" movies and "Crank"—doesn't rip, tear, or shed his apparel during the fights. Basically, if you march off to "War" thinking it is going to be the eighth wonder of the world where martial artistry is concerned, you are drastically deluding yourself and the end result of freshman director Philip G. Atwell's realistic but slam-bang crime melodrama will disappoint you. Nevertheless, Atwell delivers lots of savage action scenes with a high body count, but "War" never degenerates into a big, dumb action thriller with clever lines or flamboyant fighting.

Essentially, first-time scribes Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley have taken the classic Japanese sword-fighting saga "Yojimbo" (1961) with Toshiro Mufine {later remade as the Spaghetti western "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and even later as 1930s crime opus "Last Man Standing" (1996)in which the lone hero enters a town and wipes out two bloodthirsty crime families by swearing allegiance to each but betraying both until nobody is left alive. The biggest difference is that Smith & Bradley have grafted onto this simple but solid formula another time-honored formula about the two cops that have been partners until one dies at the hands of the mob and the other sets out to wreck vengeance on the evildoers that killed his friend. As "War" opens, we're introduced to two FBI agents in San Francisco. Tom Lone (Terry Chen of "I, Robot") and John Crawford (Jason Statham), are best buds that keep their eyes on the Japanese Yakuza gangsters and the deadly Chinese Triad mob. They are after a notorious assassin named Rogue that nobody can identify because he has plastic surgery every six months and then kills the surgeon to preserve his anonymity. Rogue has a nasty way of going his own way, but his trademark—like The Lone Ranger's silver bullets—is his titanium shell casings that he leaves behind at the scene of his crimes. Our heroes think that they have killed Rogue during the opening shoot-out, but he survives and wipes out Tom Lone and his wife Diane (Steph Song of "The Long Lunch") and their young daughter Amy (newcomer Annika Foo) at their cabin and torches the place. When Crawford hears about the massacre, the bodies have been burned beyond recognition, but he finds a shell casing at the scene that matches those that Rogue uses. Crawford swears vengeance and dedicates himself to killing Rogue. In the meantime, his obsession with Rogue undermines his marriage, and his wife Jenny (Andrea Roth of "Highwayman") divorces him, takes custody of their son Daniel (Nicholas Elia of "White Noise"), and moves out. Three years elapse with no sign of Rogue, and Crawford retrieves a titanium shell casing from the scene of a particularly violent crime scene. When we see Rogue this time, he isn't wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask. In fact, this is the first time that we see Jet Li and he is playing Rogue. He enters a Yakuza nightclub and slashes the throats of the thugs guarding the entrance to the boss's gambling den. The Yakuza boss sends his two Dobermans charging after Rogue. We hear one yelp in pain and the second comes back with an explosives device attached to its collar and blows up its owner. Suddenly, Yakuza killers as well as Triad gunmen start dropping like ten-pins and Rogue is the wrecking ball behind their murders.

Writers Smith & Bradley let this nonsense churn on for about an hour and a quarter and then they pull the biggest switcheroo in screen history that contradicts everything in my plot synopsis. Mind you, they drops hints along the way that something isn't right, but you'd have to have read the script to know how incredibly characters change in the last quarter hour. Freshman director Philip G. Atwell makes his directorial debut with "War," and he does just about everything to salvage this drivel. First, he pares down the action to essentials so the whole thing is over with in 103 minutes. Second, he stages the action as if he were shooting a Miami Vice episode. Everybody drives a cool car. Rogue tools around in a sleek, shiny Spyker C8 Spyder, a handmade all-aluminum convertible equipped with electrically operated single-hinge tilted doors, while Crawford steers a vintage Chevrolet Chevelle SS.

"War" barely makes the grade as a crime melodrama.

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