A big hunk of barnstorming widescreen entertainment, “Iron Men” is the most spectacular of the celebratory pics trotted out for New China’s 60th anni. Cleverly welding the content of old-style socialist-hero movies to slick, modern-day filmmaking techniques, this biopic of famed ’60s oil driller Wang Jinxi has no market outside China but enough raw energy and production values to work as a specialty item in film weeks. Release last May started slow but recouped half its reported 50 million yuan ($7 million) tab after a couple of months.
As with their previous collaboration, “The Knot,” helmer Yin Li and scripter Liu Heng crosscut between period and modern stories, starting with two contempo oil workers, Liu Sicheng (Liu Ye) and Zhao Yilin (Huang Bo, “Crazy Racer”), stranded in a desert. Without any further backgrounding, the film cuts back to March 1960 in freezing northeast China, where a band of roughneck drillers have arrived to explore the Daqing oil fields and, against all odds, begin a heroic struggle to find black gold under the leadership of never-say-die Wang (Wu Gang).
Structure becomes clearer about 30 minutes in, as the pic flashes back to the start of the contempo story. Workaholic Liu, who turns out to be Wang’s son, is a troubled type who’s spent too long in the desert. Female doc Wu Mengxia (Meng Su) tells him he’s suffering from feelings of inadequacy over his dad’s rep, and further flashbacks to the ’60s expand on Wang’s story, complicated by accusations of cowardice at the time.
Back in the present, Liu’s story reaches a climax — and eventually returns to the opening scene — as he and Zhao quarrel over a cute young cook, Guo Xiaomi (Bai Jing), and Liu later goes to rescue Zhao and Guo when their truck breaks down in the desert.
Yo-yo-ing storyline works better than in “The Knot,” and Huang’s typically lusty performance as Zhao helps compensate for Liu Ye’s over-introverted playing of the troubled Liu Sicheng. But the script never satisfyingly links the separate father-son stories into a dramatic whole. It’s the ’60s black-and-white sequences — full of blood, sweat and tears — that make the movie, buoyed by Wu’s gritty perf as Wang, Zou Ye’s broad symphonic score and the first-rate period design.
The other star of the film is the beautifully composed widescreen lensing of Zhao Fei, who’s done sterling work over the years with everyone from Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige to Jiang Wen and Woody Allen. From the hot deserts of Inner Mongolia to the snowy wastes of Daqing, Zhao makes the film an intensely physical experience, even when the psychology of the main characters isn’t always convincing.
Pic was initially known under the English title “Iron Man” (referring to Wang) but has since adopted the more suitable plural form, “Iron Men.” Original Chinese title can be read both ways.