Feel the call of the hero. At least try — the movie really wants you to. Alas, the basic setup of Call of Heroes is a tense, action-packed opportunity gone begging. It’s not bad, just frustratingly less than it could have been.
We enter the story at ground level with teacher Miss Bai (Jiang Shu Ying), as she chaperones a group of children from the decimated Stone City to the town of Pucheng. Stopping at an inn, they witness a drifter (Eddie Peng) stand up to a bunch of bullies before riding off blindfolded on his horse. It’s a fun and promising opening, followed up by a needless filler scene giving the background in voiceover as unconvincing CG long-shots fill the screen, capped by a banner billowing in the wind. The story could quite easily have been picked up through character dialogue in the first fifteen minutes and the only thing lost would be the aftertaste of cookie-cutter scene setting.
Anyway, government troops have been sent away from Pucheng to the front lines of battle, leaving the town under the protection of Sheriff Yang (Lau Ching Wan) and his deputies, collectively known as the Guardians. When Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo), son of vicious warlord Cao Ying, moseys into town one early morning and promptly murders a couple of people on a whim, Sherriff Yang puts him on trial. This is interrupted by a deputation led by Colonel Zhang (Wu Jing) arriving to deliver an ultimatum — release the “Junior Commandant” by the next morning or face attack from the warlord’s army. Sheriff Yang refuses, promising to uphold justice and have the unrepentant murderer executed. So the die is cast for a contest of wills.
It’s the same essential premise as the Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo. The Pucheng town set has that frontier feeling, with a wide main street, complete with wooden rail for tying up horses, but on a grander scale. It is extensive and detailed and rightfully so, as the majority of the running time is spent there.
On one side of the conflict, Lau Ching Wan is solid as the upstanding Sheriff Yang. He’s in a pretty pickle, wanting to preserve the rule of law in the face of a hostile superior force and convince the whole town to stand with him on principle. On the other side is the unhinged Junior Commandant Cao Shaolun. Louis Koo manages some quiet menace early on, but this all goes out the window when the laughing starts. Seriously, he laughs a lot. He cackles. He guffaws. He even giggles, and it all comes across as incredibly fake. The story is about larger than life characters, but with his clean white attire, gold-plated pistol and briefly glimpsed pet sulphur-crested cockatoo, he sticks out a mile as a pantomime villain in a story of heroic archetypes.
Much better is Eddie Peng. With many a cocked eyebrow, lopsided grin and fondness for chewing stalks of grass, he evokes your disinterested wandering gunslinger/swordsman type except he carries no weapon. He’s pleasantly fun to watch and between this and his fine dramatic turn in Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come, he’s hopefully evolving beyond his tepid pretty boy/bad boy wheelhouse. The most interesting relationship is between his drifter Ma Feng and Wu Jing’s colonel Zhang. The two have history and being supporting characters it is their choices and fates that could most conceivably go in any direction. Unfortunately their climactic moment is buried under an avalanche of CGI.
A few other chances to punch up the drama pass by as well. The tension in this film is seeing how the characters will respond in a pressure-cooker situation and it could be an interesting study in where the limits of loyalty lie. Since Cao Shaolun is such a static, one-note bad guy there’s only so much interaction his character can sustain with anyone else. There really needed to be a scene between the sheriff and Colonel Zhang. The climactic “call of heroes” muster is oddly flat as it’s not clear why those involved have decided to change course. More could also have been done with Shi Yanneng’s character and his mercenary band. After arriving in town they are barely seen until a dramatic action showdown. The cover image of Shi Yanneng and Lau Ching Wan duking it out amid a town engulfed in explosions looks exciting. The reality is that scuffle is over within a minute and there are no explosions nearby at the time.
Action on the whole is disappointing. The violence has some brutal moments and even a child is killed, so fair warning. Some good martial arts performers are here and almost all the guardians get into the fray, including Yuan Quan as the sheriff’s wife. However match-ups are truncated and the fighting is often too disjointed to follow, leaving the impression that cool stuff is happening rather than showing it, or being augmented by floaty wirework or CGI when it is visible. The finale has a good buildup, but can’t deliver on its promise — and that’s the film in a nutshell. It ends up being an appeal to the idea of heroism, despite having all the pieces in place to sound a clarion call to action.