David Wu, long-time editor of Hong Kong action auteur John Woo, returns to feature filmmaking with this spirited war-time thriller that supplants nationalistic breast-beating with action and romance to mostly positive effect.
At the height of the Sino-Japanese War, small-town huntsman Mu Liangfeng (Peter Ho) is drawn into the conflict after saving a truckload of Nationalist troops from a Japanese sniper. Mu had previously rescued a US pilot from his crashed plane, who in turn showed him how to give his weapon the proper respect. Recognising this inherent discipline in Mu, army captain Mengzi (Tony Leung Ka Fai) recruits him into his elite sniper unit.
As the invading Japanese forces flood south, and the Nationalist Army must rely on the help of underground Communist rebels for support and intel, the conflict heats up throughout China. Mu, however, has other interests than going to war - namely starting a relationship with widowed restaurateur Liu Yan (Song Jia). This distraction gives Mengzi cause for concern over the safety of his men, especially with Japanese Colonel Masaya (Guo Ming Xiang) zeroing in on the unit.
There are a number of different relationships throughout Cold Steel - the burgeoning love affair between Mu and Liu Yan, the mentor/student dynamic Mu has first with the American pilot, John, and then with commanding officer Mengzi, as well as the looming nemesis that is Masaya. However, for writer-director David Wu, the most important relationship of all is between a soldier and his weapon. Cold Steel doesn't simply fetishise guns in his film - although the film does boast a number of impressive action sequences - it wants its characters to lay down their rifles and make sweet love to them. Throughout the film, different characters extol the virtues of weaponry, the lyricism of gunplay, while pushing to "let the bullets do the talking" whenever possible. It's one thing to promote a respect and even reverence for tools such as these, which have the power to kill and maim if not used correctly, but Wu takes this to ridiculously melodramatic lengths that at times drew unintentional laughter.
When the film does remove its finger from lovingly caressing the trigger and get on with telling a story, Cold Steel is actually pretty damn entertaining. For a Chinese wartime epic there is a refreshing lack of nationalistic jingoism, instead spending its time staging large scale action set pieces in which snipers square off amidst exploding buildings and piles of rubble. That said, it is often unclear exactly what the mission at hand entails, and the audience is expected simply to go along for the ride with Mengzi, Wu and Co. as they bear down on the encroaching Japanese soldiers time and again. But Cold Steel's biggest problem is how much time it spends on romance, rather than fighting. The action all but comes to a dead stop in the film's middle third to allow Mu and Liu Yan adequate courting time, so she can get over the memory of her dead husband and Mu can pluck up the courage to make his move.
The result is a film that blows both hot and cold as it moves towards a grand, if convoluted finale that relies as much on coincidence and deus ex machina as the hard-earned efforts of its characters. When it's on point, Cold Steel is flashy, fast-paced and assured in its action scenes, and light, heart-warming and engaging during its romantic interludes. At other times, however, it feels disjointed, uneven and overly melodramatic, and asks us to sympathise with characters who prefer the touch of cold steel against their flesh to the warmth of a good woman.