Set against the wild and woolly backdrop of China's seventh-century western frontier where outlying settlements are perpetually at war with Turkish raiders, "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" centers on two courageous heroes: Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen of "Red Sorghum"), a renegade military man wanted for refusing to unjustly execute captive Turkish women and children, and Lai Xi (Japanese superstar Nakai Kiichi), a Japanese-born emissary eager to return to Japan after a life of sworn service to the Chinese Tang emperor. Just one final mission stands in the way of Lai Xi's homecoming--he must capture and kill Lieutenant Li. Of course, anyone familiar with Hong Kong gangster films like John Woo's "The Killer" will see precisely where this is headed, for in Asian cinema, equally heroic adversaries are rarely at odds for long. After a rousing initial encounter, the two agree to temporarily suspend their hostilities long enough to escort a desert caravan and its precious cargo--a mystical Buddhist artifact--through Turk-infested territory ruled by the nefarious and greedy warlord Master An (Wang Xueqi of "Yello Earth").
The film's iconography is obviously American--caravan as stagecoach, Turks as Indians, Silk Road as Oregon Trail, etc.--though its underlying themes of honor and enemies uniting to fight a more deadly common enemy, as the Chinese have done throughout their history, are more characteristically Asian. But He Ping seems far less interested in intellectual particulars than in showing viewers a rollicking good time. Jiang and Kiichi are stoic, empathetic heroes while Wang cuts a marvelously sadistic and charismatic villain. Popular mainland actress Zhao Wei, whose character is the film's narrator, is enjoyable as the token female--a general's daughter--but clearly gets the short end of the testosterone-driven tale. Technical contributions are uniformly dazzling, with standout work from A-list technicians like cinematographer Zhao Fei ("Raise the Red Lantern," "Sweet and Lowdown") and renowned Indian composer A. R. Rahman ("Lagaan" and the Broadway hit "Bombay Dreams").
While He Ping's previous pictures, notably "Sun Valley" and "Swordsman of Double Flag Town," have all dwelt roughly in the same milieu, "Warriors of Heaven & Earth" is far and away his most ambitious and commercial venture to date. Wrought with all the gusto of a big-budget American crowd-pleaser, and featuring action scenes and set pieces that would make the likes of James Cameron and Steven Spielberg stand up and take notice, the Sony Pictures Classics release looks well-positioned to reap some bounteous crossover rewards. As a caveat, those unaccustomed to certain staples of the genre may want to prepare themselves for the interjection of supernatural elements--as a general rule, Chinese period films featuring Buddhist monks as characters do so only as a preface to some kind of mystical detour. That being said, it's hard to imagine anyone so persnickety as to let minor distractions stand in the way of what is easily one of 2004's most thrilling adventures. Starring Jiang Wen, Nakai Kiichi, Zhao Wei and Wang Xueqi. Directed and written by He Ping. Produced by the Huayi Brothers. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Period epic. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated R for violence. Running time: 114 min