Top critical review
War - What is it Good For?
on 18 May 2008
Beleaguered action-thriller writers of the late 1980s must have thanked their lucky stars when it emerged that the straightforward substitution of Triads or Yakuza for Italianate Mafia could revitalize any given gangster plot. Those workhorse sagas of honour and retribution were given new Oriental clothes and sent out to collect our cash. Yet, whereas the traditional Mafia movie can stand alone, Hollywood has generally accorded to the established Western mode of presenting the East as a mysterious otherness requiring exploration and explanation by an outsider. Hence Mickey Rourke in "Year of the Dragon" or Michael Douglass in "Black Rain".
In the case of "War", our guide and hero is a cavalier cop played by Jason Statham - an actor whose continuing fame is in itself an enigma surpassed only by that of Keanu Reeve's career. After his partner is murdered, Statham vows to bring San Francisco's ethnically murky underground of Chinese and Japanese crime syndicates to justice (that's right - why choose Triads or Yakuza, when you can have both!). Jet Li, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his role as the traitorous go-between attempting to stoke up the titular 'war' between the rival gangs. The film's various shoot-ups and car chases supply the moving and generally bloody background to this game of cat-and-mouse between Statham and Li.
Nobody pays to watch movies like "War" for striking performances, and this is just as well. Statham by turns exhibits Mockney posturing, hyperbolic Shakespearian rage and laconic sarcasm, almost as if he is in on the joke. Li is as impassive as ever, although once the plot begins to unravel the perpetual smirk lining his face speaks less of Machiavellian pride than rapidly advancing insanity.
There's no getting away from Li's age. The fight choreography on display here is not a patch on his Wushu epics or even distant crossover outings like "Lethal Weapon 4". That said, he is given scant opportunity to try his art - director Philip Atwell cut his teeth making Gangsta' pop videos and stays true to form here. Guns and explosions predictably take centre stage; now and then somebody flashes a samurai sword; dumbfounded police officers demand to know what the hell is going on; Statham pins an informant's head in a bathroom door; Devon Aoki dons a trouser-suit. And all the while "War"'s relentlessly violent action scenes have neither the louche charm of Tarantino nor the authenticity of Scorsese. There's even a surprising lack of the slow-motion gunplay ubiquitous to Far Eastern cinema.
Li fans will likely be disappointed, while others will remain unimpressed by the film's lurching between a genuine revenge story and a trigger-happy slug-fest. In the first case both leads are unconvincing and the plot too strictly rail-roaded down a lazy sequence of shoot outs to generate any dramatic momentum, irrespective of a clever twist towards the end; in the latter there is nothing on offer here that has not been done better a hundred times before, even by the two leads themselves.