The year is 1557, and Japanese pirates (known as wokou) raid China’s coast with impunity. The Ming Dynasty’s attempts to dislodge them have failed, until a young general, Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao), takes over the campaign, introducing new tactics and recruiting soldiers with a personal stake in the fight. Referred to as a “god of war” for his successes, Qi isn’t merely a skilled battlefield tactician; he’s a legitimate inspiration to his troops. For this reason (and, you know, ridding China of pirates), he will become a national hero.
Here it turns out the wokou are no mere brigands — they’re secretly supported by Japanese royalty. God of War’s political machinations become a bit hazy (one key early character simply disappears), and the bureaucratic intrigues drag somewhat. Qi’s responsibilities also cause strains in his marriage to wife Qi-Wang (Wan Qian), resulting in an unhinged (and thankfully abortive) plot by his lieutenants to mock-kidnap her to teach her some manners.
Thankfully, this is all just the warm-up for the final battle, in which Qi’s army of 3,000 faces 20,000 pirates. (Buccaneering was clearly a more lucrative profession in dynastic times.) Making things even worse for him, Qi is forced to split his army, directing his troops against the wokou leadership in Taizhou while leaving Qi-Wang in Xinhe, commanding mostly women and older men.
The battles are wonderfully dynamic: They showcase all manner of weapons and fighting styles, and Chan gives them an extravagantly epic scope (thanks to no fewer than eight production companies) and an often startling intimacy. Indeed, some of the best parts of God of War come during its quieter moments — an interaction between one of Qi’s lieutenants and a young scribe, a brief conversation between proud samurai Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide) and the “ronin” leader who longs to be a true samurai himself.
Zhao, a national wushu title holder in China, is understandably the focus of most of the kung-fu fighting, but the legendary Sammo Hung (as Qi’s superior, General Yu Dayou) gets to show his stuff in a scene with Zhao that serves as both a literal and a metaphorical passing of the torch. The athleticism on display shames much of Western action cinema’s quick-cut hand-to-hand editing, and the final swordfight between Qi and Japanese general Kumasawa (Shaw Brothers mainstay Yasuaki Kurata) ranks as high as any in recent memory.
Despite Chan’s compression of a decades-long story into one key battle (which renders the finished product somewhat rushed feel), God of War is a lavish reminder of how fiercely proud China is of its past, and of how much more of it we’ll get to see in the coming years.