As a fan of Asian cinema, I find it generally exudes a certain kind of cultural coolness that's lacking in most American-made action films. For every whizzing bullet and empty red-white-n-blue 'splosion that hits movie screens stateside, there's a quiet reflection on battle as art that's released on the other side of the world. For that reason alone, 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' is the sort of film I'll drive hours to see when it's released theatrically. But while I hoped that this film would join the ranks of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' 'Curse of the Golden Flower,' and 'Hero,' instead I found it to be a cheesy, ancient-Chinese swords-western that's all style and no substance.
The story centers on two skillful swordsmen in the 8th century -- an emissary to Japan named Lai Xi (Nakai Kilichi) and a fugitive named Li (Jian Wen). Li is wanted for defying the emperor after refusing to kill a group of prisoners and Lai Xi is dispatched to catch him. Complicating the situation, however, are the rules of honor which prevent Lai Xi from interrupting Li's current quest to protect a monk traveling through the desert. Forced into joining Li on his mission, Lai Xi ends up befriending his would-be adversary, and must now decide whether he too will now disobey the empire, and chart his own course.
While the story has potential, unfortunately director He Ping seems too infatuated with visual trickery to craft a tale of much significance, with the film's collection of clichés and one-liners reducing it a kind of B-movie comicbook. This puts the full weight of 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' on the capable shoulders of cinematographer Zhao Fei, an accomplished artist who really brings the visuals and battles to life. The script even gives him the opportunity to pull off a stirring castle siege by the time the film draws to a close. But while the scenes he captures are often awe-inspiring, other integral aspects of the production fail to rise to the same level -- including, most notably, the film's amateur-looking costuming and set design.
Making matters worse, characters tend to be one-note caricatures, the narration is an overwritten bore, and a few moments come dangerously close to winking at the camera. Fight scenes are a mixed bag -- many of them are choppy and poorly edited, making it difficult to follow the progression of the battles. Slow motion shots erupt for little reason, villains literally twirl their mustaches, and cringe worthy Rambo-esque quips pop up far too frequently. If this were intended as a tongue-in-cheek comedy, I might have enjoyed things a bit more, but it's clear that that was not the filmmaker's intention.
Worst of all, the ending vaults into spiritual pretentiousness and then abruptly ends as if it has spoken to the universal truth of mankind. I had at least hoped for some kind of compelling wrap-up that might boost my overall opinion of the flick. Sadly, as was the case with nearly every other aspect of the film, here too, I was disappointed.
In the end, hitting the mute button would probably have made 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' a more engaging experience for me. The cinematography is gorgeous and the film is often a treat to watch. But unlike the great films of its genre, every time I attempted to sink my teeth into the narrative of 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth,' I felt as if I was diving head first into the shallow end of the pool.
Presented in 1080p on a dual layer 50GB Blu-ray disc, 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' is certainly technically impressive. Encoded with the MPEG-2 codec, the film boasts bold colors, sharp contrast levels, and good shadow delineation. Unlike other some other martial arts films released in high-def, there's no source noise, crush issues, or compression artifacts. And compared to the standard DVD edition, this Blu-ray transfer is simply amazing. Fine object and texture details are crisp and well rendered -- wind-blown sand looks great, patterns on costumes are clearly defined, and I could identify every tiny background element in this historical world. The landscapes and villages are equally noteworthy and small windows, mingled plant life, and clouds in the sky all display nice detail.
For the most part, the glorious cinematography effectively distracted me from this disc's minor flaws, but they are there if you look for them. Specifically, there are some slight bouts of contrast wavering (particuarly in shadowy interiors) and the vibrant palette occasionally dips into the average range of the DVD. Grain levels are largely understated but fluctuate in brighter scenes, black levels sometimes never reach solid darkness, and the image softens during a few character close-ups.
In short this is a solid effort from Sony. The picture quality leaps and bounds better other similar efforts like 'House of Flying Daggers' -- here's hoping this is the start of a new trend.
Impressively, 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' boasts not one, but two, uncompressed PCM 5.1 mixes -- one for original Chinese track, and one for the dubbed English track. While I'm an original-language guy through and through, at least dub fans will have the same high quality sound package as subtitle purists like myself. The disc also includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track that's noticeably thinner during moments of explosive action.
As mentioned above, I'm biased when it comes to dubbed tracks -- they all sound too artificial for me, and this one is no different, with the soundscape becoming muffled every time a dubbed actor speaks. I really avoid these mixes at all costs. However, the Chinese PCM mix has crisp dialogue, bassy tones laced into commanding voices, and good prioritization amongst all the sound effects. The soundscape is nice and full, channel movement is smooth, and accuracy is dead on. Ambiant sounds are handled well with fire, the stirring of horses, and the clinking of armor all subtly represented in the sound design. The soundfield utilizes every speaker and I was happy to find soft noises crackling all around my home theater, even in quieter scenes.
My only complaint is that most of the sound design during the battles and fight scenes is somewhat punchy and exaggerated. Bass tones are strong on impacts, but there's too much treble boosting in the effects to make them sound natural or earthy. Blows are harsh and lack tonal variety -- arrow hits have the same volume and pitch as sword clangs. The entire design of these scenes constantly reminded me that I was watching a film, making true auditory immersion quite difficult.
The standard-def DVD edition of this disc included a slim supplements package featuring a total of two items. Both are ported over to this Blu-ray -- a decent "Making Of" doc and a music video by Julin Tsai. At nearly a half an hour long, the doc is a sure bet for fans of the film, but really anyone watching this release should give it a try just to catch a few tidbits about the film's grand cinematography and lush visuals.
The "Warriors of Peace" music video, meanwhile, is exactly what I expected -- a waste of time that adds zero value to the disc. The biggest downside is that there isn't an option to turn on English subtitles during the song. It may be catchy, but who's going to care if it's impossible to decipher the lyrics?
'Warriors of Heaven and Earth' just isn't up my alley, but I have no doubt that some martial arts fans will enjoy its odd combination of the unintentionally zany and the dramatic. Happily, the video transfer and the uncompressed audio tracks make this disc a joy to see and hear for all. There may not be a wealth of supplements, but this Blu-ray should still satisfy fans by giving them a massive upgrade over the shoddy standard-def DVD. Here's hoping that the upcoming Blu-ray release of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is given the same high quality technical treatment as 'Warriors of Heaven and Earth.'