As ploddingly familiar as it is good-looking, Roger Spottiswoode's drama, based on the life of an Englishman who saved an orphanage full of boys from Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists in the 1930s, distills China's pain into the story of one white Westerner—plus his romantic interest and a wry native sidekick—making a difference while world history rages around him. Jonathan Rhys Meyers—a 21st-century Irish heartthrob appearing here with hair barely tamped down from its trendy coxcomb and an overcooked Oxbridge accent—is more incongruous than terrible as naive Brit George Hogg, who's saved from the Japanese by Chow Yun Fat (hogging the light relief as a Chinese guerrilla who enjoys blowing stuff up) and further redeemed when a self-appointed American nurse (a capable Radha Mitchell) dumps him at a barely functioning orphanage. Once there, Hogg has the time of his life planting veggies, fending off lice and foreign soldiers, and finally fleeing with the boys along the unforgiving Silk Road. Beautifully shot by House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, Huang Shi is a work from the heart hobbled at the get-go by the anxiety that no one will finance, release, or show up for such earnest material without recognizable stars under the age of 35, regularly paced explosions, and the usual narrative arc curving from despair to slim ray of hope.
Opens at Metro, Fri., June 20. Rated R. 125 minutes.