Fantastic Fest: ‘Cold Steel’ Highlights the Hellish Ballet of War

By  · Published on September 25th, 2012

Editor’s note: This film was originally featured as part of our Fantasia Fest 2012 coverage, but it’s also playing Fantastic Fest, so we’re bringing it back.

Mu, a young hunter with a staggering talent behind the eyepiece of a sniper rifle, saves an American pilot shot down by the Japanese in WWII-era China. When he returns to his village with his wounded new friend, he finds a trio of Chinese soldiers stirring up trouble in the local tea house and insulting the lovely widowed owner; something he cannot abide.

His intervening actions land him on a prisoner transport, but when that transport is attacked by Japanese snipers, Mu demonstrates his lethal abilities to get them out of their dangerous predicament. He is immediately given a choice: enlist or be shot. Assigned to an elite sharpshooting corps, Mu becomes a local hero for his valor and the success rate of his team’s missions. This however also lands him in the crosshairs of a ruthless Japanese sniper.

Cold Steel, in a rifle shell, is an affable wartime actioner reminiscent of, but certainly not beholden to, Enemy at the Gates. It was directed by long-time editor/John Woo collaborator David Wu, whose similarity in sensibilities hits you right between the eyes…particularly in the action department.

People have long referred to the work of John Woo as “bullet ballets.” This moniker is not only well-earned, but also apropos to all great action sequence architecture. Much like ballet, like dancing in general, constructing the perfect action scene is about creating angles, movement, and impact. Wu very much grasps this concept. The battle sequences in Cold Steel are dazzling in this regard; as artful as they are brutal. Wu weaves these incredible set pieces that are expertly choreographed in terms of both the ebb and flow of actor movement and sharp editing, no surprise there, and of the cinematography. The film is positively gorgeous to look at even in its most severe wartime moments. And though there is almost no hand-to-hand combat in the film, Wu employs similar frantic movements to sniper combat that work despite their seemingly antithetical nature.

Unfortunately, Wu and Woo are also united in their weaknesses. The biggest shortcoming of Cold Steel comes when the firing ceases and we commence with the character development. The inserted emotional imagery, called upon to manufacture metaphor, falls well short of actual resonance. The flowery poetry of the dialogue in these moments is hokey to the point of distraction. The constant flashbacks to underline the affective significance of every mundane activity is what overloads the run time and throws off the pacing. Do we really need a melodramatic explanation of why a simple hand-slapping game conjures memories of the squad leader’s brother? Especially when that backstory is never fleshed out? What is so frustrating about this overly sentimental fluff is that it counteracts the legitimate character work in the relationship between the soldiers.

As with many period Chinese action or martial arts films, Cold Steel deals with the long-standing animosity between China and Japan. Here again, we have a somewhat biased depiction of historical events, but the restraint shown in Cold Steel in this regard allows for a more multifaceted portrayal of characters on both sides. The Japanese sniper bent on taking down Wu, while definitely not averse to using despicable tactics, is in love with a woman who can’t accept his violent tendencies. The pain of this rapidly-growing distance, and the fact that a Japanese character is staunchly anti-violent, lends more humanity to that nationality than most Chinese genre cinema has been willing.

The flip-side of the coin is that the soldiers in the Chinese sharpshooting squad are not fully defined by a romantic perception of war. Their deeds are heroic, they are honored, but they are also flawed humans who speak crudely, lust heartily, and beat the hell out of one another for their various mistakes. Ultimately, it was refreshing to see the humanity playing field leveled a bit.

The film seems to wrap up nicely, if a bit hamfistedly, but then just before the credits roll, another aesthetic landmine is tripped. The very last shot is overlain by the kind of cliffhanger, twisty visual that’s nonsense given the rest of the film.

Still, overall Cold Steel is a fun, well-shot, and mostly impressive in terms of character development and action.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.