The villain in the occasionally exciting Chinese action flick "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" is one of those macho-fey dudes. He glides around the movie's Gobi Desert locales in all-white getups that have astronomical-looking thread counts. He has a dastardly smirk, he rolls his eyes, and he can be seen dismissively raising his arm to perform the Tang Dynasty-era equivalent of "talk to the hand." The cornrows in his hair would qualify him for a season in the WNBA, and when he's not having people garroted, he whiles away downtime sawing on his samisen.
The movie sees the warlord as the sort of full-bodied sadist available in many a spaghetti western -- if Wang weren't playing him, a dirtier, more meticulous Warren Oates would be.
"Warriors," meanwhile, is more of a sand-and-noodles western set in the Far East. Set in the seventh century, the story pits Japanese emissary Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi) against Li Zai (Jiang Wen), the level-headed soldier being hunted by Master An. They grunt at each other, but they'll bond, just in time for a big showdown with An's very large, well-armed posse.
Lai and his band of men are transporting a young princess, a younger-seeming monk, and a bunch of ancient Buddhist texts, which are what the men leading the caravan assume a separate group of attackers is after. But as one smart fellow observes, the attacks are too persistent and way too keyed-up for that. So the monk pipes up and admits that while the texts are important, the attackers really want to get their hands on a far more interesting relic.
At least they think it's interesting. Frankly, once the little monk unveils the thing in a cave, you might be bowled over, not by its holy force, but by the massive flashback you get to the Tibetan nonsense of "The Golden Child." Later, there's another bruising sequence so gimmicky and contraption-like that it's possible to think the lost ark was being raided, too.
Directed by He Ping with bouts of sluggishness and gusto, "Warriors" ransacks enough of the dust-swept battle genre (start with Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, and John Ford) to have no rousing or opulent B-movie personality of its own. The movie is never less than spirited, and where Wang Xueqi is involved, it can be robustly comic. But the other characters don't really come to life, which you'd expect from people with nicknames like Ma Gun, Baldy, and Old Diehard. We see these guys in long, elaborate fight sequences, mostly on horseback. And it's a testament to the rigors of the filmmaking that when they're over you also feel as if you've survived. The drawback is that it's tough to feel bad for the people who don't.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warriors of Heaven and Earth
Directed by: He Ping
Starring: Nakai Kiichi, Jiang Wen, Wang Xueqi
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: R (violence)
In Mandarin, with subtitles