One of our most anticipated films of 2016, Call of Heroes is a neo-western set in China during the Warlords era (beginning of the 20th century). Blood-thirsty, demented Commander Cao (Louis Koo), son of Warlord Cao (Sammo Hung) rides into the village of Pucheng, where he kills three people at random. He’s arrested by sheriff Yang (Lau Chin Wan) and sentenced to death, but his second-in-command Zhang (Wu Jing) soon arrives, issuing an ultimatum to the people of Pucheng: to release Cao or to be massacred. But Sheriff Yang stands by his verdict, helped in the face of growing adversity by a wandering swordsman (Eddie Peng), who once was Zhang’s comrade-in-arms.
Surprisingly, Call of Heroes is much less than the sum of its parts, as the collaboration of a master of spectacle like Benny Chan, a legendary action director like Sammo Hung (who also has a brief cameo), and a prestigious cast from Hong Kong and the Mainland (not to mention a terrific score by Wong Kin Wai) yields a consistently enjoyable but ultimately fairly uninspired and visually half-baked epic. It has a jerky progression where despite numerous short action sequences and tragic deaths, the narrative always reverts back to the same set-up: Commander Cao laughing behind bars while ultimatums are being given.
Unfairly, Louis Koo’s performance has been derided even though his unhinged fiendish acting is perfectly appropriate to playing an unhinged fiend, and actually provides the film with a spark of unpredictability that enlivens it considerably. The back-story between the characters of Eddie Peng (who hams it up as much as Koo, but to less effect) and Wu Jing (whom age really becomes) is so perfunctory that its dramatic payoff falls flat. And while Yu Quan is pure class and has good chemistry with the ever-reliable Lau Ching Wan (here slightly sleepy despite having to perform a lot of the action), she gets very little to do.
But more jarringly, Call of Heroes disappoints with its spectacle. There are countless occurrences of intrusive and pointless CGI, from green-screen work that smacks of a rushed production (people talking on a hill: wasn’t it possible to shoot on that hill?), to details that seem like they could have been done practically to better effect (a rope being cut, for instance). And Sammo Hung’s action directing, while of course never less than perfectly enjoyable, is marred by an awkward oscillation between grounded action (Sammy Hung gets to perform blindingly elaborate twin-batons moves), and gravity-defying wire-work that simply doesn’t fit the film’s aspiration to plausibility.
Long Story Short: Call of Heroes is much less than the sum of its estimable parts, enjoyable and well-acted but visually half-baked and narratively jerky. **1/2