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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

War (review)

Nobody Is Kung-Fu Fightin’

WTF? I thought the big deal about Jason Statham is that he’s a white guy who can kick ass martial-arts style? Isn’t that the whole point of him as a supposed movie star? I mean, it’s not like he’s got much else to recommend him. He’s cold, thuggish, and impossible to sympathize with. But he can movie-kung-fu like nobody, apparently, or at least like no other gwai loh.
Okay. I can accept that. That’s a reason to throw a bloke into movies, I guess. So: is it me, or does one not expect, when seeing him cast against Jet Li — the Gene Kelly of cinematic kung-fu — in a movie called War, of all possible titles, that, like, the white kung-fu dude and the Chinese kung-fu dude will, you know, get it on in a bad-ass martial arts showdown? Is this not the entire point of the endeavor? To leave this out… would this not be like selling a flick as a cheap, cheesy, sleazy porno and neglecting to include a cum shot? If you’re gonna be stupid and exploitive and B-move-ish, don’t you owe it to your audience to at least be competently stupid and exploitive and B-movie-ish?

And yet, War denies us the simple, brainless pleasure of watching these two guys get Oriental on each other’s asses. It’s like someone made Gamera vs. Mothra and, oops, forgot to give us two guys in rubber suits battling to the death. Oh, Li (Fearless, Unleashed) and Statham (Crank, Cellular) get to slap each other around, all girly-girly, in one scene, the one that is meant to be the big climactic confrontation, but: heh. Are they kidding? Slapping around is not what we paid to see. We paid to see kung-fu, and we don’t get it.

Look, no one is going to War to see Jason Statham “act.” The script — by first-timers Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley (Smith is a former personal trainer, and it shows) — attempts to be very dramatic, all “oh, they killed Jason’s partner, and now he’s mad, and out for vengeance.” But Statham can’t sell it — he just isn’t leading man material, and he’s not, alas, the second coming of Bruce Willis. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on Statham; maybe he can act. But he keeps that a secret here. He’s an FBI agent obsessed with his partner’s death at the hands of the rogue Asian assassin called, well, Rogue (Li), and now he’s hunting Rogue down, and when they meet — in the first of only two scenes Statham and Li share, Rogue tells him, “I saw it in your eyes, John: pain, rage, loneliness.” I was all: Huh! If only we could see that in Statham’s eyes, there might be something interesting to distract us from the profound lack of kung-fu bad-assery.

No, wait: Rogue doesn’t tell Statham’s agent that in their first of only two scenes together. He tells Statham’s agent that before they’ve ever actually met. Hmm. And later, in that first-of-only-two-scenes, the FBI agent goes on and on about the weirdness of Rogue’s new face — he frequents shady plastic surgeons who regularly alter his appearance, you see — but the only look the agent has ever had of Rogue, as far as we can tell, is in blurry photographs in which you can barely make out that Rogue is Asian.

There’s a whole lotta really dumb stuff going on here, like a ridiculous amount of indiscriminate shooting. Statham’s agent acts as Judge Judy and executioner on more than one occasion — are FBI agents really allowed to kill disarmed suspects in cold blood? Devon Aoki (Sin City, 2 Fast 2 Furious) is hilariously awful as the daughter/heir apparent of a Yakuza crime family (there’s a lot of nonsense going on about warring Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triad mobs); she gets to say stuff like “Your stupidity insults my father” while channeling the ghost of Morticia Addams. And the ending? Hoo, don’t get me started on the multiple levels of preposterousness.

No one would care, though, if we got what we came to see: Jason Statham and Jet Li whaling on each other for, like, 20 minutes. What a gyp.

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MPAA: rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, sexuality/nudity and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Christian Howell

    So you mean there is no fight between two guys who are known for fighting? That would be a definite jip(sp). But then I don’t go to many movies anyway cause it’s too much trouble. How do I get a job where I go to see private screenings?

  • amanohyo

    What. The. Hell. You’re kidding right? I guess Li wasn’t joking about Fearless being his last martial arts film. I don’t know who produced this, but God damn. It boggles the mind. I know I usually whine about asians being shoehorned into martial artist roles, but he’s the freaking 5-time national wushu champion and all he does is shoot guns?

  • Doa766

    “To leave this out… would this not be like selling a flick as a cheap, cheesy, sleazy porno and neglecting to include a cum shot?”

    I love you

  • Ken

    Oh, Li (Fearless, Unleashed) and Statham (Crank, Cellular) get to slap each other around, all girly-girly, in one scene, the one that is meant to be the big climactic confrontation, but: heh. Are they kidding? Slapping around is not what we paid to see. We paid to see kung-fu, and we don’t get it.

    I haven’t seen the movie, and don’t plan to, and while I have no knowledge of martial arts, and know you’re in the same boat, it occurred to me while reading the review that perhaps there’s something to be enjoyed for martial arts fans in the slapfest you describe. That is, if the scene is technically correct (a la the Princess Bride’s duel scene). maybe fans of pure martial arts could enjoy the scene on a level that most of us can’t. I’m not saying that it is, or even that it would redeem the rest of the movie, but it seems that if you have two “actors” knowledgeable in the methods, that you’d have the opportunity to put together such a scene, perhaps for the first time in a Hollywood movie.

    Do you think that’s a possibility?

  • MaryAnn

    I think that’s a stretch, Ken. Their one bit of fisticuffs isn’t even well choreographed for a simple movie punchfest. I didn’t see anything particularly deliberate or stylistic in their fight.

  • David C

    “Judge Judy and executioner” has just earned a permanent place in my personal lexicon….

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not mine. It’s from *Hot Fuzz.*

  • David C

    Huh. I saw the link, but I didn’t realize Judge Judy was “international” enough to rate a joke about her in a British movie.

    Which reminds me, I’ve gotta get that DVD now. (I’ve been missing *so* many movies in the theater this year….)

  • MaryAnn

    How do I get a job where I go to see private screenings?

    I should make it clear that *War* was not screened for critics in the U.S. before it opened, but that the studio did hold, in NYC, what they call a “courtesy screening” on Friday afternoon, once the film was already playing in theaters. So at least I didn’t have to pay to see it, and I got to sit in a nice plush easy chair. And still I was pissed off. :->

    The movie *was* screened for critics in Canada because — get this — the movie was mostly filmed in Vancouver. I wonder, did the studio expect critics to rave over the beautiful B.C. scenery (standing in for San Francisco and environs) and entirely fail to notice that Li and Statham barely even meet in the film, never mind fight?

  • E

    Being part of the key demo for these movies, or… I used to be, Statham isn’t as much known for “white guy who can do martial arts”, as much as he’s supposed to be this cool, stoic, kick ass guy. The problem is he doesn’t have enough natural charm to glide through this role. He was riding the “Snatch” train for awhile, where I enjoyed him, and then had some success with the action roles, and thats where he’s stuffed into now. Having seen him pull off some snarky charm, I think with a better script, and him actually fighting Jet Li, it could have been a much better action movie. I’m personally interested in Shoot Em Up. With Giamatti, Owen, Belucci, and a movie thats blatantly going over the top, how can it fail?

  • “Having seen him pull off some snarky charm, I think with a better script, and him actually fighting Jet Li, it could have been a much better action movie.”

    At that point, you’re basically asking for a whole other movie. Which isn’t wrong, but those aren’t exactly minor changes.

  • MaryAnn

    *Shoot ‘Em Up* is freakin’ awesome. :->

    I didn’t realize Judge Judy was “international” enough to rate a joke about her in a British movie.

    I wouldn’t have thought so, either. But there it was in *Hot Fuzz.* Which maybe made it even funnier than it would have been in an American movie.

  • Statham has taken an interesting course to B-list stardom, because I don’t believe he’s had much formal training. There’s rumblings about a background in petty street crime — studio planted, perhaps, but with at least a touch of reality to them. More importantly, I think there’s something authentic about his tough-guy shtick — a real hardness behind his eyes that no pretty-boy actor can touch — and it’s allowed him to carve out a very specific niche playing very specific roles. I hope he never expands out of it, because I don’t think it will go well for him, but in the right film (like Guy Ritchie’s and a few others), it can be a lot of fun. Also, he rocks the MPB, and for those of us similarly afflicted, that’s a source of hope.

    Sadly, WAR is not one of his better efforts… mostly because it wastes time showing him talking about things we don’t care about while countless thugs go about their business unpummeled. And yeah, he *sort of* has a fight with Li at the end, but like MA said, it’s weak and lame and compromised by stupid plot twists that detract from the purpose of the exercise.

  • A Guy

    At one point a worried Triad guy asks Li what the Statham character is up to and Li replies, “Don’t worry, he’s chasing goats.”

    Minutes later I realized Li meant “ghosts”.

  • Drave

    Chasing goats? Now that would be an interesting movie. Maybe a companion piece to Tom Yum Goong. Anyway, this sounds pretty hilariously bad, so I might see it this week. I actually find Jason Statham watchable no matter how awful the movie is. He has a ton of what I think of as AQ, which stands for Action Quotient, and measures the degree to which you find yourself wanting to root for any action hero. It’s a strange kind of alchemy that can never be predicted.

    The textbook example of the theory of AQ is in comparing Samuel L. Jackson to Bruce Willis. Sam Jackson is a guy who is known for being bad-ass, and he plays bad-asses in almost every movie he is in. He is the anthropomorphic personification of bad-assery on this plane. Somehow, though, he has zero AQ. He just cannot carry an action movie by himself. He works best when he is off to the side, as a sidekick, villain, supervisor, or shadowy puppet master. Think of the best action movie you’ve ever seen him in. Was he the lead? Nope.

    Now, Bruce Willis, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of a stereotypical Hollywood hero. He’s this sort of scruffy, uncouth, average-looking, everyday schlubb, and he has been since day one. Yet he is arguable the finest action hero this country has ever produced, because his AQ is through the roof. Making him the hero makes any movie watchable, if not actually successful. Think of the worst action movie you’ve ever seen him in. Did it decrease your enjoyment of him even slightly? Nope.

    On the female side, I don’t know if we’ve ever really had a Bruce Willis, although Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton could easily have done it with different career paths. Angelina Jolie is probably equivalent to Samuel L. Jackson. Milla Jovovich is definitely the female analog to Jason Statham.

  • acmike

    Woah!! Wait just a minute!! Your metaphor/comparison is way out of whack. You can CERTAINLY promote a cheap, cheesy, sleazy porno and neglect the cum shot – it can have two (or more)chicks and still be good! Power to the females. Just so ya know.

  • MaryAnn

    this sounds pretty hilariously bad, so I might see it this week.

    It sounds funnier than it is. It’s mostly just boring.

    it can have two (or more)chicks and still be good

    What is it with guys and lesbian action anyway?

  • MBI

    ***What is it with guys and lesbian action anyway?***

    Well, we’re open-minded.

  • Aaron Pound

    **What is it with guys and lesbian action anyway?**

    Watch Coupling. Jeff explains everything.

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