The problem with being a connoisseur of B-grade action movies is that eventually you start applying the kind of elevated expectations that this genre is supposed to guard against. You get so accustomed to, say, a late-summer Jason Statham
movie providing more thrills than many of its big-budget counterparts that suddenly Statham and Jet Li
costarring in a chintzy action picture becomes a victim of perhaps unreasonable expectations.
That pairing of B-movie titans, somewhat inexplicably titled War, is neither a team-up nor a battle royale; it's actually kind of like a low-budget Heat knockoff, with a far larger cast and a far snakier plot than is warranted by the stars' specific and unpretentious skill sets. It begins with FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) losing his partner (Terry Chen) to a mysterious assassin called Rogue; so far, so cheesy, so good. But when Rogue (Jet Li) re-appears three years later, involved in a convoluted (or maybe just dull) bit of Asian-mob rivalry between the Yakuza and Triad families, momentum falters. Crawford attempts to navigate the underworld and bring his nemesis to justice, while geeks in the audience become confused by Rogue's inability to absorb Jason Statham's mutant fighting powers. Article continues below
For several long stretches, War aspires to some kind of cop-show procedural tone, showing us the ins and outs of various shady betrayals and double-crosses as the fed close in on a vast network of baddies. In other words, it's the kind of thing the Michael Mann
of Heat and Collateral does so well, and the wrong choice for a movie about a rogue assassin who needlessly kills club bouncers with tiny razor blades. The movie is cluttered with extra characters, presumably to up the potential humanity and/or body count. Statham, usually the consummate grizzled loner, even has a personality-deficient backup team and an estranged ex-wife.
A few of the side characters have a little more pep. B-movie staple Luis Guzmán spreads his trademark chummy vulgarity, and cartoonish-looking Devon Aoki
brandishes blades and guns at every occasion, up to and including placing a lunch order. The film seems to be setting her up for a spectacular final confrontation with one or more of the big action stars, but that moment never comes; the screenwriters startle themselves by creating a non-wife female character and let her drop.
When the boys finally get around to their action, they're a lot of fun. Statham and Li both remain convincing physical performers and the bloody mayhem around them unfolds with amusingly efficient brutality, although the net effect might be comparable to eating meals at highway rest stops during a long drive: you take what you can get and you're grateful for it. This stuff is apparently choreographed by Corey Yuen, but it bears little resemblance to the eye-popping, movie-anchoring fights and stunts he put together for either star in movies like Unleashed and the Transporter series.
Still, some more sustained chases and fights, even second-tier versions, would've been more than enough to warrant a recommendation. As is, War could suffice as entertainment in a lot of low-expectation venues -- on the second half of a drive-in bill, on cable during a rainy afternoon, or as part of a Domestic Films of Jet Li film festival -- but its value as a stand-alone proposition is disappointingly low.
Back when Statham was a no-name supporting character in Li's The One, an okay smash-up like War might've seemed like a natural progression, but their action work since has simply been too entertaining for this one to work. Doubtless Li and especially Statham have more and better B-movies in their future; sometimes even for second-tier stars, there's no turning back.