Sony Classics’ entry in the summer action import sweepstakes, He Ping’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth, is a fitfully rousing but too derivative mishmash of genre tropes drawn from westerns (both the Hollywood and spaghetti varieties), Japanese samurai epics, and—according to the publicity material, anyway—a 17th-century Chinese folktale appropriately titled Journey to the West. Set in the seventh-century Tang Dynasty frontier, Warriors pits imperial emissary Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi) against Li Zai (Jiang Wen), a mutinous soldier with a conscience, who’s being stalked by a ruthless cattle baron—er, warlord (the wonderfully preening Wang Xueqi). Lai has been given permission to return to his native Japan if he tracks down and kills Li, but the two call a temporary truce to protect a caravan that includes some mysterious Buddhist relics. Needless to say, after several showstopping battle scenes shot with more stamina than grace, Lai and Li bond.
From its mock-Morricone musical punctuation to dusty Xinjiang province’s resemblance to Monument Valley, Warriors is comfortably familiar. It lacks the tension between grandeur and intimacy that characterizes the films it apes (most notably Ford’s and Kurosawa’s) and even squanders its most potentially moving hook—Lai’s looming choice between freedom and friendship—in favor of an embarrassing denouement straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it has the undemanding appeal of a B-grade western, Warriors is as reverently retrograde as any of Kevin Costner’s periodic plasticized oater updates.