Epic Chinese war dramas always offer a fantastic time at the theater. They seemingly offer a new reality where long, drawn out fights punctuated by drama-filled dialog seem to be a matter of course. Heroes of the battlefield have superhuman abilities both physical and mental. Not only can they fend off several attackers at once, but these principal fighters can also recite Sun Tzu’s Art of War from memory. Break up the political intrigue with a few brutal war scenes and successful entertainment is nearly guaranteed. Regrettably, The Warlords proves that knowing a formula well doesn’t always correlate to executing a formula well. Thankfully, the film is mostly good.
The Warlords takes place in 1860’s China during political strife and bloody combat with the Taiping rebels. General Pang (Jet Li) is sent to put down the rebellion, but is betrayed by his supposed ally General Ho and Pang’s army is slaughtered to the last man. Only Pang survives to wander aimlessly until he is welcomed by a group of bandits led by Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). After a violent scuffle with Ho’s men, Pang convinces Hu and Yang to join the military and all three become blood brothers. They are prepared to die for each other, but they will soon discover if their blood oath can survive the toll of war, political deceit and a clandestine love triangle.
By and large, The Warlords hits all the right notes for an entertaining film. The bread and butter, of course, are the battles and duels. While not necessarily revolutionary, the war scenes are exciting and hearts will swell as soldiers fearlessly charge through a barrage of rifle-fire. The visceral moments truly shine when the principal characters take the field. Pang, Hu and Yang live up to the movie’s title as they stop blades with their hands, split enemies in half and withstand being impaled by a spear. Not everything is perfect in this regard, of course. The army ranks look a little thin at times forcing some shots to be tight enough to feel claustrophobic in order to disguise this shortcoming. Also, some of the extras don’t really look like they’re taking the moment seriously in some of the more intense scenes. Overall, however, they get the job done.
While Jet Li doesn’t get many moments to show off his brutal one-on-one fighting skills, he surprisingly turns in an excellent dramatic performance. This is probably the most vulnerable Jet Li has been in a very a long time. He’s able to love, mourn and regret, which aren’t emotions that are typically afforded to action stars. Unfortunately, Takeshi Kaneshiro’s performance is a bit over the top, with exaggerated expressions and stilted line-delivery. Fortunately, none of the performances are unwatchable.
The biggest concerns with The Warlords are its pacing and obvious patching. This epic story feels rather accelerated at times. In one pivotal moment, characters discuss sacking a city before another army can, which will secure a final victory. It seems like an important story element that should be displayed to highlight the characters’ struggles. Instead the very next scene simply shows the aftermath of the battle. The story comes across, but it lacks the catharsis audiences are looking for. Also, there are a handful of repeated shots throughout the film. While most audiences probably won’t recognize the recycled footage, a discerning eye will definitely be taken out of the story for a moment.
Considering the complex plot and interesting characters, The Warlords feels a little shallow. The film could have plumbed the depths of action and drama, but instead only goes halfway with underdeveloped characters and a rushed story. Still, if you’re looking for exciting martial combat and a surprisingly dramatic Jet Li, then The Warlords will be time well-spent at the theater.