Sunday 6 April 2008

War (2007)

As I explore through a century or so of cinema, I've discovered a number of people who contributed to the art of the medium, whether as actors or directors or writers or whatever. I'm keeping lists of their films, so that I can try to acquire the ones I haven't seen and keep track of the ones that I have. It's working really well but I've gradually started lists for some people who haven't been dead for fifty years and some of them are even still working in the industry today. Two of them star in this movie and they're people that I'm always eager to watch: Jet Li and Jason Statham, two very different action oriented actors. The catch is that every time I turn around there are a few more titles that I haven't added to my list yet because I hadn't heard of them.

This is hardly a subtly titled little number but it's appropriate. Statham plays Special Agent Jack Crawford, but not the one Dennis Farina plays in Manhunter. He works for the FBI and one case brings him into contact with a professional hitman whose work is legend. This hired killer nearly kills him but his partner apparently takes him out. Of course they can't find his body and it doesn't take long at all before he's back to kill his partner's entire family. Needless to say, Jet Li is this rogue and it isn't too surprising to find Statham back on his trail in San Francisco's Chinatown three years later. What follows is the war of the title, not just between the triads and the yakuza but between Special Agent Jack Crawford and a rogue hitman with no name.

In some ways Jet Li and Jason Statham are exactly the same. They both tend to play characters with serious balls, as they do here. Statham plays hardball with a police captain in a cop steakhouse. Li tips Statham off to come to him in a warehouse while he's unarmed knowing he can't do anything. It's why Li was perfect in Hero and how Statham was so great in films like Crank, and they're both well suited to the material here.

However they have differences, big ones. When it comes to fighting, Li is the real deal. He's a wushu legend who is quick, smooth and perfectly believable in odd encounters or intricately choreographed fight scenes, even when he's not doing much out and out martial arts fighting. Statham, on the other hand, looks what he used to be, a fashion model. However he knows how to move too, having been a world class diver and he was more than able to perform his own stunts in The Transporter. As The Transporter proved, Statham can be cool as ice but it's Li who gets that role here. Jack Crawford is an angry man and Statham's good at angry.

War isn't a bad film but it's certainly not a great one, though that fault doesn't lie with Li, Statham or various very capable and very watchable supporting actors like Kenneth Choi or Devon Aoki, who looks more like an Oriental Christina Ricci every day. The problem is that it could have been so much more, and in the hand of a John Woo or a Luc Besson is likely to have been something much less generic. Mostly this feels like a rehearsal or an expensive sales pitch to someone who could make something of it.

Perhaps the problem lies with director Philip G Atwell, whose resume comprises of second unit work on the National Treasure movies and a whole slew of rap videos for people like Eminem and 50 Cent. He obviously has a lot to learn about what makes a film like this work, which needs a lot more than casting and crazily expensive cars. The cinematographer is Pierre Morel who did far better work in The Transporter so I'm leaning far more towards Atwell and editor Scott Richter who came to film from the music video world too, having made videos for Britney Spears, Eminem and Disturbed. Writers Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J Bradley didn't do a bad job on their first screenplay but I think they tried to be too clever here and overshot themselves. Watch it if you like Statham or Li, though this is far from the best work of either, and if you like watching quarter of a million dollar cars.

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