The United States has a lot of problems, but here’s one that may not have occurred to you: Its mobsters aren’t cool enough. That’s the implicit judgment of War, which imports gun-slinging Chinese triads and sword-wielding Japanese yakuza to battle its morally equivocal protagonists. Set in a San Francisco that seems entirely uninhabited by native-born Yanks, this latest example of the globalized action flick is a hyperkinetic if uninspired blow-’em-up.
The film opens on the docks, where two men who don’t look much like the FBI agents they’re supposed to be—unshaven,
English-accented Crawford (Jason Statham) and his Chinese-American partner Tom (Terry Chen)—face a shadowy international hitman known as Rogue (Hong Kong’s Jet Li). Crawford seems to get his man, though Rogue’s body is never found. Soon after, Tom is killed, along with his wife and young daughter. In Tom’s burned-out house, John finds one of Rogue’s trademark titanium bullet casings, so he’s not surprised when, three years later, the assassin appears to be active again. Rogue enters a yakuza-run dance club that’s also a brothel and gambling den. Hookers go running as he shoots up the place. One guy dies midscrew, and a bomb-wired dog explodes, sending tattooed human flesh every which way. Director Philip G. Atwell never tries to top this lurid sequence, which is probably just as well.
It becomes clear that though Rogue is a ruthless killer, he’s not working for either triad boss Chang (John Lone) or yakuza leader Shiro (Ryo Ishibashi). Instead, he’s playing them against each other, increasing the carnage by inciting both Chinese and Japanese underlings to take revenge on their counterparts. Rogue recalls the title character in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, who also dupes two opposing factions, except that Rogue is humorless and much more hardworking. (He does a lot of the offing of people himself.) Crawford stays on Rogue’s trail, but the film’s focus shifts from the FBI agent to the hitman. Scripters Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley ultimately give each character a twist, but neither of them is plausible—or even interesting.
Atwell, a first-time feature director whose résumé is heavy with hip-hop videos, displays some visual flair in War, notably with titles that flash on the screen in Chinese or Japanese and then quickly shuffle into English. He’s aided by many veterans of the multinational action film. In addition to Li, Statham, and Lone are Luis Guzman (in a small part as one of Crawford’s contacts) and Sin City’s Devon Aoki, who plays Shiro’s lethal daughter, Kira, with her customary lack of finesse. (She squelches the script’s funniest line.) The cinematographer is Pierre Morel, who has shot several Luc Bessonnproduced Gallic-
Chinese hybrids and even directed one, last year’s District B13. And the flick’s fight choreographer, Corey Yuen, is one of the form’s most accomplished practitioners.
Too bad the movie doesn’t give Yuen much to do. Like Jackie Chan, Li is getting too old for elaborate stunt work. But he lacks Chan’s gift for comedy, which leaves him with what he does here: shoot, slice, and wordlessly walk away from scenes of destruction. For all except scholars of the genre, War merits a stroll in the opposite direction.