For eyes that have overindulged in the stylized razzle-dazzle of ”Hero,” the grit, dust, and occasional cheese of Warriors of Heaven and Earth come as a corrective slap. We’re in the starker, more barren territory of a Chinese Western now, albeit a Western set in the Gobi Desert during the Tang dynasty, when bandits and Turkish marauders roam free. Here, Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen), a Chinese soldier-turned-mercenary on the run because he has disobeyed orders to kill Turkish women and children, crosses fates with Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi), a Japanese-born warrior who has been promised release from his long service to the Chinese Emperor – once he kills the fugitive Li. One honorable man recognizes another, though – both John Ford and Akira Kurosawa would applaud – and the two agree to postpone the showdown until Li, who is leading a young Buddhist monk in a camel caravan across the desert, delivers his charge to safety.
There’s lots more, too much more, in writer-director He Ping’s script, which throws in every comfy cowboy cliché but the bonds between man and horse (or camel). The monk carries a very special sacred object (resulting in a couple of displays of very bad ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” special effects). A weirdo warlord (Wang Xueqi) won’t stop pursuing the caravan or making strange faces. A band of retired brothers in arms joins Li, ”Seven Samurai”-style, and a furled peony of a girl tags along (and narrates), for no other reason than that she’s played by top Chinese star (and ”Shaolin Soccer”’s action cutie) Vicky Zhao Wei.
The fight choreography is blocky, the storytelling sometimes confusing or cornball. But then cinematographer Zhao Fei, freed from the demands of his gigs with Woody Allen, turns his eye to the desolate ochre beauty of the western provinces. And the unadorned sight is as refreshing as an oasis.