Historical action flicks of biblical proportions are a big export from China right now. Movies that use the country’s history as building blocks for a vast array of brutal blitzkriegs, illuminating China’s war-torn past, and the results can be decidedly mixed. By these movie’s own definition, they’re almost nothing but action – no coherent story and no engaging characters. It’s a pleasant surprise therefore to find that God of War carries with it a surprising amount of narrative heft against its raucous backdrop of warmongering.
In all honesty, God of War really shouldn’t have this amount of narrative dexterity. The year is 1557, and China has become ravaged by an armada of Japanese pirates. They command China’s costal settlements, and the morally uneven mixture of otherwise noble samurai and anarchistic Ronin are keen to not let their grasp slip. Enter then General Qi Jiguang, whose legendary status as a military leader drives the film’s action home as he leads a hand-picked army into the heart of Japan’s command.
The canvas is there for all-out war to engross us as much as possible. By the film’s end, there’s a definite resolution to Japan’s conquest of China’s coast, and yet even though we being our story in the aftermath of Japan’s coastal capturing, we’re plunged into the very heart of battle from the get-go. This is a film that thrills in the idea that war is can be an ever-evolving constant, with neither a clear beginning nor end. It’s not interested in showing you how or why Japan took hold of China – why bother with that when we can be fulling precious screen time with the gratuitous violence that the stubbornness of those who engage in conflict brings with it. The stubbornness of China’s resilient fighters who resist Japan’s iron fist and the stubbornness of Japan’s ever-ready armies.
We, as an audience, are propelled along at a brisk pace, that stubbornness almost acting as our carrier across God of War. Both sides are so caught up in their own ideology of their situation, one desperate to take their land back from Japan, the other focused on keeping China in their power, that it’s comfortably easy to get swept up in the ensuing drama of it all. That is, if you’re in the mood for camp, high-octane adventure that’s sprinkled with soap opera levels of drama from its characters.
This is where God of War becomes less engrossing. It’s not so much the simplistic clashes between characters about how war should be won that’s the trouble, that kind of shlocky drama is part-and-parcel with these action-driven exports. Rather, it’s the uninspired execution of that drama. Generals, loved ones, samurai and Ronin have miniature arcs throughout God of War in which they deal with squabbles and inner demons that are mostly resolved by the film’s end, by there’s little charisma in the cast to carry that drama along. There’s some pleasingly competent acting on display here. Vincent Wenzhuo Zhao’s General Qi and Yasuaki Kurata’s Commander Kumasawa a whispered charm to their roles as respective hero and villain of the saga, but for a film of this scale, it demands conviction from its cast. Zhao and Kurata’s own winning presences negate them from this demand, but the remainder of the cast falls rather flat. They fail to boast of any particular inidividuality or charm. A film like God of War requires a cast that’s as dangerous as its premise, but that sensuality just isn’t there.
God of War is a film that looks, sounds and feels like it’s purposefully designed to not change your life. Even if it’s a more rewarding watch than other films of its ilk thanks to its galloping yet well-timed story-telling, it doesn’t have enough idiosyncrasies to prevent it from blending in with a lot of China’s other action flicks. But when the results still charge along as entertainingly as this, it’s still forgivable.
GOD OF WAR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GORDON CHAN / SCREENPLAY: FRANKIE TAM, MARIA WONG, MENGZHANG WU / STARRING: WENZHUO ZHAO, SAMMO KAM-BO HUNG, YASUAKI KURATA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW