My love of martial arts movies has been suffering these last few years. When I first properly developed a love of the genre, I was spoilt by the wealth of classic and new titles being released by Hong Kong Legends, a DVD label that started in 1999 which specialised in Hong Kong action movies. They distributed Drunken Master, which was the first kung-fu film I saw after Enter the Dragon and kick-started my swift trawl through most of the kung-fu movies available to the British public. The label seemed to flourish in the early 2000's, with Hollywood action movies like The Matrix being famously influenced by their Hong Kong counterparts. However, this trend slowed down as the decade drew on and Hong Kong Legends was discontinued in 2007. Luckily, the mantel of Hong Kong action providers in the UK was passed on to Cine Asia. They continued to release new martial arts movies over here and began to re-release some of the Hong Kong Legends back catalogue. However, Cine Asia's output slowed down over the next couple of years too and in 2012 they disappeared, much to the disappointment of martial arts fans like me, who relied on them to bring the best of Hong Kong action to the UK.
Just when I thought all hope was lost though, I got an email from one of my trusted PR contacts announcing that Cine Asia was back! Five years after their last new release, they're re-entering the scene by releasing Benny Chan's action blockbuster Call of Heroes. I snapped up the chance of reviewing a screener of course, and as you might imagine my excitement and expectations were high. Could it possibly live up to them?
Before I answer that question, let me fill you in on the film's plot. Call of Heroes is set around 1916, the Warlords era of China. An evil dictator, Cao Ying, is driving people from their homes to safer areas. One rural village in Pucheng is seemingly safe, until Cao's son Shaolun (Louis Koo) comes to town and murders three innocent people. The village's guardian, Yang Kenan (Sean Lau) decides that he must be sentenced to death, but Cao Ying's army demand he be released or they will storm the village and massacre the inhabitants. So the village is torn between upholding the law and protecting their lives.
I welcome back Cine Asia with open arms if this is the sort of material they're going to be releasing in the future. Modern in terms of special effects and glossy presentation, yet refreshingly old-school in terms of tone and action, it's exactly the sort of kung-fu renaissance I was hoping for, alongside Kill Zone 2, which I also heartily recommend to Hong Kong action fans.
Before I lavish too much praise though, the film does showcase some of the flaws prevalent in a lot of Hong Kong action movies. As is often the case, the melodrama is cranked up to 11 – young orphans are put in harm's way and friendships are tested to their limits, peaking with long, dewy eyed heart-to-hearts. Also, there are probably more subplots crammed into the film than necessary, which again is common in these types of epic Asian action movies. There's a lot of macho-posturing too, with some cheesily over the top music cues heralding slow motion shots of men walking into danger or from the aftermath.
Saying all of that, I've grown used to these things over years of watching similar films, so to be honest, it's all part of the charm. Also, although the melodrama levels are high, this helps give weight to the action sequences. A lot of Hollywood action movies don't give you enough drama, believing video-game style fireworks are enough to excite, when in fact you need to care about who is fighting who or you'll quickly lose interest. Also, although there are a lot of plot lines to follow here, it never gets messy and none are far removed from the core of the drama, so it juggles them very well, even if it could have been a tighter film without a few of them.
Of course, I've not mentioned the aspect most martial arts fans will be interested in – the action. Well, it's really bloody good. And bloody is the right word as there's a healthy dose of the red stuff on screen. Not enough to get over the top, but enough to give the fights more impact. The choreography uses quite a lot of wirework, which can put off some, but I don't mind it and thought it was very well implemented here and helped give it a bit of an old-school vibe. There's some CGI used to enhance the fire and weaponry (largely just Kenan's whip – which looks pretty cool), but again it doesn't get in the way of things. Instead, the energy and skill involved in the fight scenes takes centre stage. There's a nice mix of fast cutting action and long takes (presumably to hide the weaker skills of some actors and highlight the great ones of those with martial arts experience) and there's some dynamic camerawork utilised effectively too. The fight scenes are up there with some of the best I've seen in recent years. Maybe not quite The Raid, but certainly not far off.
So, as you might have guessed, this release has made me a happy man. It's a bit overblown and melodramatic perhaps, but that's par for the course with kung-fu films. For those like me who love the genre, you're in for a treat. The action is spectacularly shot and choreographed, the drama effective enough to give the action weight and it's slickly made throughout. It's great to see the martial arts blockbuster make a comeback and I'm eager to see what else Cine Asia has up its sleeves.
Call of Heroes is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Cine Asia. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality was excellent, although it almost seemed too sharp. This might be down to the film's grading though or the TV I was watching it on, which wasn't the usual one I use.
For special features you get some behind the scenes featurettes, trailers and an artwork gallery.