The teaming of action stars Jet Li and Jason Statham may raise audience expectations for a lean, mean ass-kicking machine, but “War” turns out to be a flabby and formulaic programmer. Early scenes appear to promise a clever commingling of elements from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” (by way of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”) and Michael Cimino’s disreputably rousing “Year of the Dragon.” But pic quickly devolves into a standard-issue crime drama laced with routine martial artistry. What is “War” good for? A $10 million opening weekend, to be followed by an extended slog through homevid and cable streams.
Statham stars as John Crawford, a terse, tough FBI agent who bulldozes his way through a San Francisco turf war between yakuza and triad forces. Crawford claims he doesn’t much care if the Chinese gang, led by smooth-talking Chang (John Lone), and the Japanese clan, controlled by tradition-bound Shiro (Ryo Ishibashi), destroy each other. Somewhere amid the combatants, however, Crawford hopes to locate the infamous assassin who killed his partner and the poor guy’s wife and child three years earlier.
The most likely suspect: Victor Shaw (Jet Li), aka Rogue, a stealthy and taciturn hitman who uses a variety of weaponry — everything from a high-powered rifle to a bomb-laden Doberman — to dispatch his victims. (If a potential victim runs away from a swordfight, Shaw simply takes out his pistol and perforates the fleeing flunky.) When he isn’t busy earning the trust of rival crime bosses, he’s pitting their minions against each other with a lie here, a frame-up there and dead bodies everywhere.
Not surprisingly, Crawford takes a special interest in Shaw, and vice versa. As it turns out, though, each man has a nasty surprise in store for the other.
Scripters Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley deserve credit for a genuinely ingenious twist in the final reel and criticism for the rest of their muddled and meandering scenario. Musicvid vet Philip G. Atwell (who also handled second unit chores for “National Treasure”) brings ample visual pizzazz but minimal narrative drive to his debut effort as a feature helmer. Indeed, even with the aid of ace lenser Pierre Morel (who directed the rather more dynamic “District B13”) and legendary fight choreographer Cory Yuen, Atwell can’t elevate his fight scenes above the level of rough-and-tumble stuff common to made-for-homevid B-pics.
In terms of sheer physicality, Statham is an undeniably strong screen presence. But he pushes his luck here by delivering all his dialogue in the same raspy whisper, a sandpapered tone that suggests the actor spent all his time between takes shouting at the top of his lungs and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Li, too, makes all the right moves, gliding through the proceedings with the serene self-confidence of someone who’s already the read the script and knows how things turn out. Dialogue isn’t a problem: He has, at most, maybe 25 lines in the entire pic.
Among the supporting players, Lone does first-rate work in a two-dimensional role, though his appearance here, 20 years after what seemed like a star-making performance in “The Last Emperor,” may be cause for melancholy among some admirers. On the plus side, at least he gets more to do than a couple other familiar figures — Luis Guzman as a street-smart Interpol agent, Saul Rubinek as a hard-drinking plastic surgeon — in even sketchier parts.