If Quentin Tarantino is going to borrow from Asian cinema for his films, it’s only fair that Asia should return the favor. “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” is the film John Wayne would have made if he were Mandarin and alive. Chinese filmmaker Ping He takes all the elements of the classic Westerns — plains, badlands, mercenaries, bandits, honor, justice and horses — mixes them with Eastern spiritualism, and comes out with a film that is at least noteworthy, if not especially brilliant.
It’s set in the 8th century, when the Silk Road that linked the separate Buddhist kingdoms was the battleground for the various nomadic Turks that wanted control of it — or, more to the point, that wanted to rob everyone who traveled it. Sir Lai Xi (Kiichi Nakai), a taciturn, no-nonsense fellow, was sent by the emperor 25 years ago to keep the peace in a nearby region — the local sheriff, if you will, albeit with a sword instead of a gun — and for much of that time he has longed for his homeland. He writes letters to his mother regularly, promising he will return home as soon as he can.
He suspects his last assignment will be this one: Capture the fugitive known as the Butcher Li (Wen Jiang), on the lam on the Silk Road for many years but recently sighted again in these here parts. Li’s story is an interesting one: He was a soldier who went AWOL after refusing to execute a group of POWs consisting of women and children. He is, in other words, a good guy who is unfortunately now on the wrong side of the law.
All of this is irrelevant to Lai Xi, who, like Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive,” doesn’t care whether Li is guilty or not. He only cares about doing his job, which in this case is to kill him. The demands of justice are, in this case, contradictory.
Li is helping a skittish soldier and a quiet monk transport sacred texts to the capital city when Lai Xi catches up with him. Realizing that if he kills Li now, the texts will surely not reach their destination safely, Lai Xi agrees to a temporary standoff with his quarry. Li, for his part, wants out of the business, too. He wants to retire to a farm with his friends, maybe find a wife. It’s exhausting work, running from the law.
The actual bad guy is Master An (Xueqi Wang), a mercenary who has been hired to stop the transport and take whatever it is they’re transporting. Why all the fuss over some dusty scrolls? Ah, but perhaps the cargo is something else entirely.
Even the desert scenery (photographed by Zhao Fei) and the musical score (by A.R. Rahman) evoke American Westerns. We get many close-ups of reluctant men’s faces as they prepare to reluctantly do battle. Neither Lai Xi nor Li talk much, which is fine, considering the dialogue is not the film’s strong point (neither was it with most Westerns, for that matter).
Ping He directs the many fight and battle sequences with ferocious energy; they are probably the film’s greatest asset.
The movie loses me near the end, when the Eastern spirituality becomes so strong as to be out of place with the straightforward sagebrush-and-swords mentality that typifies the film up to that point. Perhaps an Eastern viewer would identify with it enough not to be jarred by the transition from dust-opera to religious journey, but to these eyes, it just looks like a huge, weird tangent. Imagine the finale of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when everyone’s faces are melting, but even MORE paranormal. It’s cool, but not befitting the rest of the movie.
B- (1 hr., 59 min.; Chinese with subtitles; )