There was refreshing honesty in the television advertising for War. Throughout the commercials, three separate words (all in capital letters) filled up the screen: SEX, VIOLENCE, ACTION. You have to admire a movie that’s willing to be so upfront about its desire to provide a few cheap thrills. Regrettably, War doesn’t actually live up to its advertising. There is brief nudity but no actual sex. There is violence – some of it graphic – but only in between long stretches of cumbersome plot. There is action, but this movie is not exactly the Jet Li/Jason Statham battle royale we had been promised. I like cheap thrills as much as the next moviegoer; for me, though, this picture wasn’t cheap enough.
Statham plays Jack Crawford, an agent in the FBI’s Asian Crime Unit. (Is there such a thing?) He is trying to track down a mysterious, Keyser Soze-esque assassin known as Rogue (Li) who slaughtered his partner and the guy’s family. Many believe that Rogue is just a myth, but then he shows up three years later to inflame a long-standing feud between the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Triads. Suddenly, people are dying on both sides, and it appears that Rogue is playing them all against each other for his own gain. Determined to avenge his partner’s murder, Crawford inserts himself into the fracas as he tries to locate the illusive assassin.
It’s amazing that I was able to boil this plot down to one paragraph because War is incredibly complex for a movie that promises nothing but sex, violence, and action. Things start off well enough, with Crawford becoming obsessed with finding Rogue. But once the screenplay shifts its focus to the turf war, everything becomes very muddled. Part of the problem is that the movie does such a poor job establishing all the Yakuza/Triad characters that we’re not always sure who’s who in any given scene.
This issue is exacerbated by a much bigger problem, which is that the story’s continuity is out of whack. People suddenly seem to know things that they shouldn’t know or, just as often, they act and we don’t understand why. There is a scene in which Crawford figures out that a cop has helped facilitate the execution of about a half dozen gangsters. In the very next scene, he barges into a restaurant and grabs hold of the cop who did it. How he identified the culprit is anyone’s guess. Consequently, we’re left scratching our heads. There are lots of similarly vexing scenes throughout. I don’t know if explanatory sequences were cut out or if music video director Philip Atwell was simply too busy trying to give his feature film debut a music video-style sense of pacing.
War represents a missed opportunity. The whole idea of Crawford tracking down Rogue is cool. So is the concept of Rogue pitting the Triads and the Yakuza against one another. The picture even has a twist ending that you won’t see coming. It may not exactly be plausible, but it’s potentially really intriguing. These elements are all solid on their own – and the film has promising moments with each of them – but they don’t come together in any kind of meaningful or coherent way.
Let me say something about the stars. I like Jason Statham. The man has a definite screen presence, but more than that, he brings a genuine sense of danger to his films. Statham clearly has no intention of being a pretty boy action hero when he could be the badass kind instead. He doesn’t mind getting down and dirty, and he always seems like he could just snap at any moment. Those qualities could theoretically give him the kind of career as an action star that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis have had. Unfortunately, they keep sticking him in these C-level action flicks like Crank or the Transporter pictures. If he doesn’t start attaching himself to higher-quality projects, I fear he will end up more like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, making one pathetic direct-to-video disaster after another. War is not a step in the right direction for Statham.
I like Jet Li too. He’s not afraid to play a bad guy, which he did so memorably in Lethal Weapon 4 (the only memorable thing about that movie, incidentally). War has two believable, compelling action stars, yet it only gives them a few paltry scenes together. If the movie was going to advertise itself as “sex, violence, action” then it should have delivered a lot more Statham-versus-Li mayhem. That would have ruled. Or, it could just as easily have gone for a more ambitious approach, fashioning a smart, twisty thriller out of its Asian crime background. That would have ruled too. Since it can’t decide which one to be, it tries to be both simultaneously, to disappointing effect. The complicated plot pushes the hardcore action into the background, and the need to have an occasional action scene gets in the way of telling a story that makes sense and has a consistent rhythm.
( out of four)
War is rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, sexuality/nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: War
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