In the middling new action movie War, a pair of vicious crime families learns the hard way that it's a huge mistake to put too much trust in an enigmatic, bloodthirsty assassin called Rogue. Jet Li plays that rogue operative as an arch-criminal so icily effective that he quickly becomes an urban legend in the underworld, a walking ghost story for wrongdoers to tell each other. Li's international criminal of mystery stokes the flames of a San Francisco gang war by playing both sides against each other. The film apparently would like to think of his game as a high-stakes chess match, but given the sluggish B-movie trappings and one-dimensional characters, it's more like a blood-soaked game of checkers.
With the Transporter movies, Jason Statham established himself as a promising action hero, but there isn't much he can do with the role of a tough-as-nails FBI agent obsessed with hunting down Li, who apparently massacred Statham's partner and his partner's family. At his best, Statham combines brawny physicality with a sly sense of humor, but here, he's hamstrung by a character driven solely by a steely determination that, judging by Statham's uncharacteristically listless performance, must be as dull to play as it is to watch.
War promises little more than the spectacle of two world-class badasses beating the shit out of each other, but fails to deliver even that. Director Philip G. Atwell, an undistinguished music-video veteran best known for his work with Dr. Dre, stingily doles out Li-Statham scenes while devoting too much time and energy to the convoluted gang wars. War only begins to approach the operatic comic-strip grandeur it's aiming for in its last 20 minutes, and it boasts a nifty (though fairly familiar) final twist. But mostly, Atwell and his screenwriters are content to let the film groan along on the strength of haphazardly realized clichés. In spite of a late-game adrenaline surge, the hoped-for fireworks between Li and Statham never quite materialize.