Set during the harrowing, hell-ravaged era of the infamous warlords, the small city state of Liang lies defenseless against the terrifying hordes of the Zhao nation. Their salvation lies in one man, Ge Li (Andy Lau). A mysterious, nomadic warrior, Ge Li possesses an awe-inspiring grasp of military strategy and is utterly lethal in the art of combat.
Armed with only this cunning and startling bravery, he marshals the demoralized citizens into a vicious and powerful fighting machine, forcing back the rampant armies of the Zhao. But as victory is within his grasp, Ge Li discovers a shattering betrayal that may well tear apart the very nation he is seeking to protect.
As its name suggests Battle Of Wits is a not a typical action film. The focus is not on the armies fighting each other, but on the tactics involved in doing so. It is this approach that sets this film apart from others in this increasingly busy genre. The action is not outright, with large armies clashing then hacking each other to bits, but instead calculated and clever. Ingenious ideas are shown for how to defend against vastly superior armies - for every lethal attack, there is a more lethal defence. While I haven't yet got bored of the epic battle scenes that have swarmed over our screens since the Lord Of The Rings trilogy made them popular, this break from the usual formula is more than welcome. Don't get me wrong, the big battle scenes still have lots of action, hacking and slaying, there is just more to it than before. The scale is large for the battles, but at times it does seem as though the budget wasn't there to match it. This has lead to some rather ropey CGI effects being evident on several occasions, which takes away from the otherwise harsh grittiness of the battles.
With so many other period films of this ilk, such as Hero and Curse Of The Golden Flower to name a few, Battle Of Wits employs an approach not used by many - Zhang Ziyi is not in this film! The big name star this time around is Andy Lau, the ever versatile and reliable Hong Kong actor. Again he does not disappoint. Indeed from his first appearance in the film as the rather Jedi Knight esque Mozi, Ge Li, he keeps an air of mystery and authority about himself throughout. He believes in peace and universal love, but has an incredible skill and knowledge of war and violence. The rest of the cast all play their roles well, despite the rather surprising casting - two Koreans in some of the lead roles. However, one character is fairly out of place and that is Fan Bingbing as the Cavalry Chief. She's the rather awkward obligatory love interest. From being a devout member of the Royal Guard, she turns into a love struck girl every time she's near Ge Li - a transformation that I did not find overly believable. Their subplot is one that Battle Of Wits could have done without.
Where the film works well, is in portraying the view points of the every day person. Not the Royal Family, their guards or their army, but the views of the poor farmer who is forced into fighting for his city. Many are seen to run and take panic influenced and drastic measures to not get caught. They urinate themselves at the signs of bloody battle and they question why they should even be fighting in the first place. Despite the motivational speeches from Ge Li encouraging them to fight back against the advancing army to keep their freedom and not become slaves, some still believe that fighting back is wrong, with one peasant saying "Who cares who we pay our taxes to?". Where loyalty is an often played upon quality of characters in these types of films, this view point is probably the more realistic for those no where near the chain of power.
The realism that the film portrays in some areas also comes through in the typically human traits of jealousy and greed. Ge Li succeeds in the impossible task he set out to do, much to the adulation of those around him. From being sceptical of him, they end up loving and respecting him. Well not quite everyone. There is one person in a Kingdom that generally will crave more adulation and respect than anyone else - the King. Needless to say his favour for Ge Li turns for the worse. Power has a way to make people with good intentions lose their way. The King initially just wants to save his city and his people, but when someone turns up that starts to rival his popularity, his available power turns him more to the dark side and as his thirst for absolute control grows, so do the consequences. While at times it may not have been completely believable, I loved the corruption of power story line. Maybe I'm far too much of a cynic and pessimist when it comes to human behaviour, but I do believe that the course of actions we see unfold would be a more realistic portrayal of how it would happen, rather than a King willingly allowing others to threaten his control.
Battle Of Wits is a good film that gives an alternate spin on a familiar genre. At times it is highly captivating, but other times the pace does slow allowing attentions to waver. My main criticisms are directed at facts that were very much avoidable. We learn that Ge Li has never defended any cities before, yet he is a tactical genius from the outset - constantly out thinking and predicting exactly right the actions of his opponent, General Xiang Yanzhang of the formidable Zhao army. That is the problem, he is too good at what he does. Why was it important to have it stated that Liang was his first mission? It wasn't and it could have been left as a mystery. Little, avoidable things like this and the poor love story are where I have negative views on the film, but it is still one that is well worth watching. It is clever in places, focuses more on realism than the fantastic, has good action and is a decent film.
Audio & Subtitles
The Mandarin DD5.1 track is pretty good. It won't stretch your surround sound system by a long shot, but it does use it effectively throughout. Arrows whiz past in all directions, the sound of weapons clashing rattles all around... it comfortably gets the job done.
The subtitles are excellent. Clear and timed well. I didn't notice any spelling or grammar errors.
This was the first film I've reviewed on this site that I watched on an HD LCD TV. Commenting on the image quality is therefore a lot more subjective as the image you get greatly varies depending on the TV, the upscaling DVD player used etc... On my 40" Sony I found the picture to be very good when comparing to how other standard definition DVDs look on the TV. Colours were crisp, detail was good. I did watch parts of the film briefly on my old CRT TV to make sure it was as I have written and it did look good on that TV too. All in, I was happy with all aspects of the picture.
DVD & Extras
For extras you have two trailers and a fifty-odd minute "Making Of" featurette. This shows many scenes being filmed and has interviews with cast and crew. It is a rather slow paced documentary, but the interviews do give welcome insight into each person's thoughts about the film.
All in, Battle Of Wits is a good and welcome film. It is not great but the different approach to the epic war film genre makes it well worth viewing. It has action and violence to keep you entertained, ingenious tactics to appeal to your brain and decent performances from all.