In the year 1557, Japanese pirates have taken control of the Chinese coast. With the Chinese General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) failing to successfully repel the invaders, fellow General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) is offered command and sets about training his own local army to achieve the task that China’s general infantry cannot.
Gordon Chan’s God of War is another in China’s long and growing list of medieval war films, replete with rival armies, sword fights, patriotic exclamations and an impressive quantity of impassioned shouting. It feels very much like its own genre with its own conventions and stereotypes, and to a large degree God of War fits very comfortably into that niche. While it does tend to drag a little in its first half, it more than makes up for it in its second before wrapping everything up into an excellent action-packed climax. Fans of genre have a lot to enjoy here. Indeed, the promise of a Sammo Hung pole fight and a soldier-versus-samurai finale should prove irresistible.
Fair warning: Sammo Hung, a popular veteran of Hong Kong action cinema, only appears during the film’s opening act. He does make a strong impression, however, and gets a couple of opportunities to showcase his immense martial arts talent. As the relatively ineffective General Yu, he is soon replaced by the innovative but awkward General Qi: an inspiration to those with whom he fights, but a relative embarrassment in the high-level environment of court politics. Vincent Zhao is likeable and earnest as Qi, but the screenplay does not afford him much depth or complexity. He is simply required to be inspiring and heroic, two qualities he ably displays.
Much more nuanced and interesting is Yasuaki Kurata as the Japanese commander Kumasawa. He is a samurai, appointed by a lord back in Japan, and commands a mixed army of samurai, ronin and straight-forward pirates. He cuts a supremely dignified figure, carefully planning strategy to defeat the Chinese forces and recognising their change under Qi’s inventive leadership. Where the script fails to illuminate his character, he subtly implies depth through stillness and a steely gaze. Kurata is more than fifty years into his screen career; his experience and presence make him God of War’s strongest asset by far.
As Qi finds, trains and leads his new army, and as Kumasawa begins to understand the renewed threat facing his pirate forces, the film moves closer and closer towards a fantastic one-on-one showdown. While that is absolutely the best sequence of the entire film, the lead-up is almost as great. The action splits between a desperate back-and-forth battle through the streets of a Chinese city, with Qi hunting down Kumasawa’s lead retinue, and a desperate siege of Qi’s own headquarters, which affords his wife (played excellently by Regina Wan) a chance to show off some martial arts skills of her own.
God of War takes a while to start moving, and stereotypes abound through its two hours, but once it picks up it runs with its China-versus-Japan premise to a fabulous conclusion. Genre fans will be in for a treat; other viewers might need a little patience to get to the good stuff.