Review: Benny Chan's Call of Heroes (2016)
Released recently in UK Cinema's, Call of Heroes (2016), proves to be one of the best recent Hong Kong action films released in the past few years, focusing more on good acting, excellent action sequences and as little CGI as possible.
The majority of the film is set in a small town called Pucheng, which is policed by the town sheriff Yeung Hak-nan (Lau Ching Wan). Before we come to Pucheng we are informed that the Warlord Cao Ying’s crazed son, Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo) has been murdering villagers throughout the country causing Teacher Bai Ling and the children to flee to Pucheng. During this time we are introduced to Eddie Peng’s character Ma Fung, a drunken wanderer who ends up assisting Bai Ling and the children during a robbery. As all of them end up in Pucheng, so does Cao who ends up murdering three people. The Sheriff sentences him to death. Before this has a chance to be carried out, Cao’s men, led by Cheung Yik (Wu Jing) demand the release of Cao. From this the film turns into a number of violent confrontations throughout, each one larger in scope than the last.
The initial setup, even though it regards a Chinese Warlord, is similar to a number of Hollywood westerns, most notably Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959), which also concerns outlaws trying to break out their boss from captivity, with a few brave men standing up to them. There is also a lot of similarities to The Seven Samurai (1954), which was famously remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960). There is another remake due this year, which will have to go some to be better than not only the original films it’s a remake off but also Call of Heroes which is more of a Western than some Hollywood productions have managed to produce recently.
Director Benny Chan seems to be the go to director for big budget blockbusters in Hong Kong. Staring his film making career with the much smaller scale A Moment of Romance (1990), teaming him up for the first time with Andy Lau, a partnership that would continue with What a Hero! (1992), then the much later Shaolin (2011). It wouldn’t be until Benny Chan would go on to direct Big Bullet (1996) that he would move into big budget blockbusters. After the production of Big Bullet, Chan would go onto strike up his most famous partnership, making multiple films with superstar Jackie Chan starting with the excellent Who Am I? (1998). They would continue to work together on the films New Police Story (2004), Rob-B-Hood (2006) and Shaolin. Jackie Chan would also produce Gen X Cops (1999), one of Benny Chan’s more popular films.
During this Benny Chan still managed to fit in other big budget blockbusters, with varying degrees of success. He would follow up Gen X Cops with the bigger budget, but lacklustre sequel Gen Y Cops (2000) and would also make Invisible Target (2007) which reteamed him with Gen X Cops star Nicholas Tse. In matter of fact Invisible Target feels more like a proper sequel to Gen X Cops than the official sequel is. Most of Benny Chan’s films are worthwhile and have something to offer most action movie fans. Even his poorer films such as City Under Siege (2010), still have that crazy feel that only Hong Kong cinema can provide.
Call of Heroes is a major improvement over Benny Chan’s last film, the enjoyable but disappointing The White Storm (2013). With The White Storm, Chan seemed to be trying his hardest to make a throw-back to the heroic bloodshed films of the 1980’s and 90’s. Sometimes it worked, but the world has changed since then and the film seemed out of place in the times were in. With Call of Heroes being a period piece there is no issue of that happening.
Made on a budget of over US $ 30 Million, Chan makes sure all the money is on screen. The set alone reportedly took over four months to construct, where a good number of the films action scenes take place. Chan also manages to get great performances from his actors, a number of which he has worked with in the past, with only one of them being guilty of going over the top. The action scenes, with fight choreography by Sammo Hung, are also some of the best action scenes Benny Chan has shot and the quality of the action makes the film a standout from similar fare. The action is also surprisingly brutal, with a good number of people being cut and impaled. Benny Chan also worked as the films main producer as well as being one of the credited script writers.
Lau Ching Wan has made a number of action films during his career, such as the Johnnie To film A Hero Never Dies (1998) and Lo Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (2012), but most of the time it is of the shooting variety, not calling for him to take part in hand to hand combat. He equips himself well in the film’s many fight scenes, only being stunt doubled for some of the more difficult moves that are required. Lau Ching Wan lends the film gravitas that a qualified martial artist may not be able to deliver. His character is a normal man pushed to take action, and unlike having a Donnie Yen or Jet Li in the role, there is an apprehension that he won’t make it out of the film alive. This was also the third film that Lau Ching Wan has worked on with director Benny Chan. They had previously worked on Big Bullet, and Chan’s previous film The White Storm.
Louis Koo is undoubtedly one of the most famous actors working today in Hong Kong cinema. He is also one of the busiest, starring in 7 films in 2015 alone. Throughout his twenty two year film career, Cao is probably the most loathsome character he has ever played. He has of course played villains in the past most notably in Johnnie To’s Drug War (2013), where he played a vile drug dealer, or in last year’s SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015), where he was out to steal his own brother’s organs. These characters pale into insignificance compared to what his character in Call of Heroes gets involved in, including his character killing women and children, stabbing people to death with chicken legs and treating his own men like dogs. Koo is guilty in the film of going over the top, with his incessant laughing sometimes being too much. A lesser star would probably not get away with this, but because he is Louis Koo he is given a pass. Call of Heroes would be the fourth film Koo has appeared in to be directed by Benny Chan with him having roles in Rob-B-Hood (2006), Connected (2008) and The White Storm.
Eddie Peng has had a relatively shorter career than his more accomplished co-stars, only recently making a name for himself in films. Beginning in 2005 with a role in A Record (2005) then continuing with roles in a number of decent dramas, the most noteworthy of these being Jump Ashin (2011), a supposedly true story. He also made appearances in the over hyped Tai Chi 0 (2012) and its even poorer sequel Tai Chi Hero (2012), both films which totally wasted his talents. He also played a supporting role in the smash hit Cold War (2012), a role which he reprised this year in the films sequel. In my opinion one of his best roles at this time was in Dante Lam’s Unbeatable (2013), an excellent boxing drama co-starring Nick Cheung. Peng would prove his action credentials in the underrated Rise of the Legend (2014) a retelling of the Wong Fei Hung legend that gave Peng the opportunity of acting alongside Call of Heroes action director, Sammo Hung. His character in Call of Heroes is probably Peng’s most likeable performance to date, the total opposite of the serious Wong Fei Hung. He is also involved in a good number of the action scenes, one of the best of them being his introduction in the film.
Wu Jing is credited as being only a guest star but his screen time probably amounts to longer than Louis Koo’s. Jing had one of his most successful years previously, starring in Wolf Warrior (2015) and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, both of which had been considerable successes. It is good to see Wu Jing take part in the film, as it had been reported the year before that he would perhaps have to take a back seat to action movies due to injuries sustained whilst making Wolf Warrior. There is no evidence of this in Call of Heroes, with Jing taking part in a lot of the films action scenes, going hand to hand against Eddie Peng. From an acting standpoint, this is the best I have seen Wu Jing, with his character having a history with Peng and being somewhat conflicted when it comes to it. He still supports the evil Cao, but isn’t happy about it. A lot of this is just conveyed by the expressions on his face. Wu Jing like some of his other co-stars had also worked with director Benny Chan on a number of occasions. He had played the main villain in Invisible Target, a monk in Shaolin and a cop in City Under Siege.
Yuan Quan is one of the few main characters that are female. Sure there are women in the village, but they don’t have much importance to the plot. She plays the wife of Lau Ching Wan, who stands by her man through thick and thin. Unlike other films in this genre, she isn’t a typical damsel in distress, proving herself quite adept when it comes to fighting, one sequence being extremely violent. Yuan Quan has also worked with Benny Chan before, having a role in The White Storm.
Rounding out the cast are a number of excellent character actors such as Philip Keung, who has appeared in over 130 films in his career and Liu Kai-Chi who puts in his usual excellent work by giving an excellent dramatic performance.
Also look out for Sammy Hung who gives a jaw dropping physical performance, taking part in one of the best fight scenes of the film. Sammy Hung is the son of Sammo Hung and has been appearing in film since the early 2000’s. Hopefully his role in Call of Heroes will lead to bigger roles, as he is quite the scene stealer in the film.
Lastly the excellent Xing Yu makes an appearance as a fighter hired to protect the villagers. He takes part in one of the films main fight scenes but unfortunately doesn’t get as much of a chance as hoped to show off his skills.
As already mentioned, Sammo Hung worked on the film as action director. To any fan of Hong Kong cinema there should be no introduction necessary for Sammo Hung, working since the 1970’s as director, action director stuntman and actor. He has made some of the best action films, not just in Hong Kong but worldwide. He has worked on over 70 films as action director/choreographer, some of which he also was the main director such as Warriors Two (1978), Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980) and Eastern Condors (1987).
In the early 1990’s he also worked with famed director Wong Kar Wai on two of his productions, the hilarious comedy wuxia Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993) and the art house hit Ashes of Time (1994). Although both films are excellent, due to the way they are shot it limits how the excellent action chorography is viewed.
More recently he has worked as an action director with varying degrees of success, with certain directors not showing Hung’s action at its best. He had worked on Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero recently, but director Stephen Fung seemed more interesting in fancy visuals than good action. More worthwhile is his excellent action scenes in Ip Man (2008) and its sequel Ip Man 2 (2010), a film which he also acted in.
With Call of Heroes he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Considering the excellent work he has carried out in his career, he still comes out with new and fresh action scenes and is willing to move with the time, something his contemporaries seem scared off. Hung also shows up in the film in a blink and you will miss it cameo.