What becomes a heroic tale the most? A hero with some rough edges, to start. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays George Hogg - a real-life Oxford-educated journalist who rescued 60 Chinese orphan boys during the Japanese invasion of 1937 - as a guy so nice, his voice is always velvety, his manner ever mild. But this is a young man who had the gumption to finagle his way into the Nanjing war zone on bartered Red Cross papers, just to see and report on what was going on. Our first clue that Hogg might lack a reporter's nose for news is when he settles into an abandoned office in the burnt-out city and types: "The city is quiet." We hear disturbing stirrings, and sure enough, right outside his window soldiers are rounding up civilians for a massacre.
Almost every turn in the action to come - with a few striking exceptions - is telegraphed by a simplistic, over-expository script. To be fair, it's charged with clarifying a complicated political situation. Still, in continually providing premonitory shots, director Roger Spottiswoode seems to suggest we can't absorb the story without having it spoon-fed.
Chow Yun-Fat as Chen Hansheng, a smart, West Point-trained resistance fighter, is a welcome presence, partly because of his deft underplaying, but also because Chen gets to make the more engaging observations; the film perks up every time he appears. Chen dispatches the wounded Hogg deep into the countryside - not so he can convalesce in peace, but to engage him in the plight of a bunch of starving, war-stranded orphans. Though Hogg initially balks at "playing nanny," soon enough, to the intrusive strains of David Hirschfelder's sappy score, he has those kids - most of them - reinfused with hope and playing basketball.
Aiding in the effort is a tough self-taught nurse, Lee Pearson, whom Radha Mitchell imbues with a renegade's practiced insouciance ("I was supposed to be an Army wife in Manila, but I can't play bridge"). Beneath her crusty exterior, is she secretly yearning for love? (Is this a Major Motion Picture?) And might she have a little problem with the painkillers she's charged with dispensing?
Michelle Yeoh is magnificent as Lee's cultivated dealer, Madame Wang, a canny merchant who clearly likes the cut of Hogg's jib: Like Yun-Fat, Yeoh leaves you wishing you knew more of her character's story. The orphans, despite their title status, tend to the generic - with one exception, Shi-Kai (Guang Li), a boy traumatized to the point of sociopathy. "You won't be able to save him," Chen warns. "You might be able to limit the damage he'll do."
What ought to be the pinnacle of the story - the orphans' odds-defying 500-mile march over snow-covered mountains toward the relative safety of the Mongolian desert - is shunted toward the end of the film and compressed to a near-footnote. In alternating between an epic remove and a pro forma romance, "The Children of Huang Shi" stints on the messy middle ground, where the unscripted human element resides.