A dauntless sheriff and a roving bladesman defend a city under siege in “Call of Heroes,” a solid, muscular action period film with an apt if overstated political allegory. Hong Kong action blockbuster director Benny Chan (“The White Storm”) gamely riffs on Westerns and samurai films, while Sammo Hung’s sinewy action choreography is a glorious throwback to the rustic vigor of Shaw Brothers films of the ’80s.Overseas buyers from multiple territories have responded favorably to “Call,” but its China opening hasn’t quite taken off. If anything, the lukewarm response confirms that mainland audiences either prefer contemporary subjects or like their period films larded with fantasy and visual effects. The film can be viewed as a 3D conversion in China.
The setting is China’s Warlord Era (1916-1928), when military strongmen commanding armies of thugs ran rampant in the north. Early on, warlord Cao Ying seizes Stone City, prompting residents to flee as his private militia rapes and pillages. School teacher Bai Ling (Zhang Shuying) escapes to the neighboring city of Pucheng with her orphaned pupils, seeking refuge at a noodle shop run by her cousin Tieniu (Philip Keung). En route, they are rescued from bandits by scruffy drifter Ma Feng (Eddie Peng). Reminiscent of “Rio Bravo,” the governing Republican forces have quit Pucheng for an expedition, leaving sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan, “The Mad Detective”) and his small but loyal brigade to protect the civilians.
Trouble soon comes a-knockin’ when a mysterious man (Louis Koo) patronizes Tieniu’s noodle shop in the dead of night. Casually drawing blood, he reveals himself as General Cao’s son Shaolin. Yang decrees that Shaolin will be executed the day after, but Cao’s colonel Zhang Yi (Jacky Wu Jing) arrives, giving them one day to free his young master or else his army will decimate the city. Shaolin, who loves to kill for sport, relishes the chance to taunt Yang. His pet phrase, “My father is Cao Ying,” clearly refers to an incident in China that went viral, when the son of a provincial party leader showed no remorse after running over two girls, responding, “My dad is Li Gang, arrest me if you dare.”
In a plot development that recalls “High Noon,” citizens betray their cowardice and self-preservation instincts, even as Yang stakes his own family’s safety to defend their lives. In a disheartening conversation with his follower Liao (Liu Kai-chi), Yang argues that “even if we kneel before the enemy, they may not spare us.” To which the weak-kneed man replies, “Let’s just kneel first and see what happens.” While the film delivers a cutting satire of how the masses fear, or else ingratiate themselves to, authoritarian power, it lets Yang spend too much time pontificating on the ideal of justice and righteous law enforcement, when his actions already embody his values.
Though the crisis supposedly unfolds over one day, the amount of plot turns appears to have evolved over a longer period, with action scenes alternating evenly with drama. Standout set pieces include a skillfully-constructed and expertly-lit group fight on a drawbridge where Yang wards off a firebrand-wielding gang, and a mano-a-mano between Ma and Zhang, while perched on stacks of giant wine jars. The largely effects-free balancing act is a graceful throwback to the hardcore, authentic martial arts of Lau Kar-leung’s masterpieces. While Hung’s finest action choreography dazzles with dangerous moves and inventive props, here he turns his attention more to designing weaponry that mirrors the characters’ physique and personality, such as a gold pistol for the show-off Shaolin, a whip for domineering Yang, long spear for assertive Zhang, and twin blades for brawny Ma.
Casting brings together actors who boast martial-arts training (Wu), acting chops (Lau), star voltage (Koo), or pin-up looks (Peng), but this catch-all approach results in varying degrees of screen chemistry and performance standards. As a principled yet humane guardian of the people, Lau’s restrained performance balances sternness with humility. He has warm rapport with his wife (Yuan Quan, of “Breakup Buddies”), whose impressive fighting helps offset the male-oriented action. The history between Ma and Zhang, who once served the same master, is not explored enough to give their conflicted loyalties the intended emotional impact. Consciously styled as a ronin figure, Peng oozes boyish cheekiness when he should be displaying maverick bravado.
Production values are visibly high, as seen in Ben Lau’s authentic-looking set of the walled city and the ancient architecture inside, all built from the ground up in a empty lot in Shaoxing province. Wong Kin-wai’s score rips off Ennio Morricone’s classics to the point where homage becomes more like derivation. Scenes such as Ma rolling into town on horseback, in a poncho, or of Yang and his gang riding into the sunset à la “The Magnificent Seven” are also more cheesy than camp.