The circumstances surrounding the Beyond Fest screening of Benny Chan’s latest film, Call of Heroes, was less than ideal. The film was meant to be the second in a double feature with Headshot, the highly anticipated Mo Brothers film. However, due to technical difficulties, Headshot had to be postponed, leaving a theater full of people disappointed in the fact that they were not going to see what was frankly the one movie that night that everyone was really excited for. So, to say Call of Heroes was facing a bit of an uphill battle would be an understatement.
The good news is that it really didn’t take long for Call of Heroes to win everyone over. Like with the best Benny Chan films, he knows how to keep things fast and fun. The story is set up very quickly introducing us to a town that has taken custody of the son of a major warlord, Cao Shaolin (Louis Koo) resulting in a showdown between his forces and the villagers led by the sheriff, Yang Kenan (Ching Wan Lau).
It’s a story that makes use of familiar tropes from the western genre, with the film even using similar music cues that echo that of a Sergio Leone flick. It’s an action film that can only come from someone with a career as long and diverse as Benny Chan, gathering influences from multiple genres and styles and mixing them into a great wuxia film.
Where the film really hits the mark thematically are the points where it hones in on the theme of principle. It’s a film that deals in the conflict between doing what you need to do to survive versus what you want to do to seek justice. A great deal of screentime is devoted to Yang deciding what is best, letting the murderer Cao go and hopefully remain safe, or execute him and risk the village being attacked. Knowing when to stick to your principles, when to compromise and learning to deal with the consequences regardless of intent are a big part of what makes the storytelling have such an impact. Even if it still speaks in mostly black-and-white terms, but it makes sense for the throwback sensibilities that Chan seems to be going for.
Once the action hits, that’s when it really becomes a treat. The fight scenes are well shot, with clear indication of geography and choreography. The sound is also incredibly impactful giving the film a visceral quality that really lends itself to the fight scenes, allowing each punch, stab and shot to feel like a cinematic exclamation point. The level of violence itself is interesting because it plays up the emphasis on choreography and grace, but on the flip of a coin, it will get bloody and brutal without much warning. It’s a strange tone that Benny Chan is trying to balance, but it does end up working wonders, especially when you are in a big crowd reacting to everything. And this goes double for everything that the villain does. Louis Koo is endlessly delightful in the film. I love me a good mustache-twirler villain, and though Cao may not have a mustache to twirl, he makes the most out of chewing and spitting out every piece of scenery he can gets his hands on. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a fun villain who takes a bizarre pleasure on every moment of violence he inflicts.
If there’s anything that drags Call of Heroes down a notch is that certain characters aren’t fully given the context needed for an audience to make a connection, so certain emotional beats don’t land as hard as they should. And while the the stunt work and SFX are great, the CG work is less than impressive and the moments where they pop up do take you out of the movie briefly. Aside from that, Call of Heroes works really well. It’s an exhilarating and rollicking action film with superb choreography and one of the best love-to-hate villains in recent memory. I mean, where else are you gonna see a dude catch a bullet with a sword and throw it right back? Exactly. 70/100
Call of Heroes has been picked up for US distribution by WellGo USA. No official release date has been announced yet.