Story: During the second half of the 19th century China is lying in ruins. The Taiping-Rebellion brought great
chaos upon the land. One of the many warlords of the country is Pang Qing-Yun (Jet Li), who in a battle lost all his
men, making him the sole survivor. He is wandering the country as a man who has lost face. In a village he runs into the
woman Lian (Xu Jinglei), by chance, who comforts him in a lonely night. The next morning, however, she just
Yonker Jiang Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), leader of a bunch of thieves that raids villages, discovers that Pang is a former general and takes him to his boss Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau). On one of their following raids Jiang and Zhao find out that Pang is an extraordinarily capable fighter and leader. Anyway, after the Qing-army intrudes into the bandits' village and seises the plundered goods, frustration and anger grows in the robbers' hearts. However, Pang comes up with a plan: He, Zhao and Jiang, along with the village's men will work for the army and earn the money to feed their families. Since Jiang and Zhao can't fully trust the new member of their gang, they decide to undergo a bloodbrother ritual with him.
Years later, not only the bonds of friendship between the three became tighter, but they also could earn quite some fame in the military. Yet, political intrigue, and bloody uprisings put their friendship to the test over and over again. In the end, Pang even has to find out, that Lian is actually Zhao's wife and so the brotherhood is about to fall into pieces...
Review: It's surprising how quietly "The Warlords" passed my radar, without arousing any need in me to watch this
film. And this even though the credits read like a who-is-who list of Hong Kong's/China's movie business.
Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kanershiro in the leads and Peter Chan on the director's chair! No doubt, "The Warlords"
can be an impressive movie every now and then, and surely isn't a bad one at all, still, at the end I realized my scepticism's
origin. Chan's work mainly aims at delivering appealing high-budget entertainment, which at some points may
provide some unusually emotional scenes, yet never deviates from what is so genre-typical for an epic and moving
film. Maybe with the exception of the three heroes, who all have very ambivalent character traits and therefore can put off
some viewers. Most of the time this proves to be a serious point of criticism, yet this is also were it becomes
pretty apparent that "The Warlords" is in fact not your standard Hollywood flick. A fact this ambitious war epic
also deserves some words of laudation for.
The story of the film is loosely based on true historical events. Nevertheless, if you are not familiar with Chinese history, then you won't know what to make of the Taiping-Rebellion. That's sad, because since "The Warlords" apparently is also made with the interest of winning over international audiences, it would have been eligible to get a little bit more background information. That the leader of the Taiping-Rebellion Hong Xiuquan was a follower of christianity and even saw himself as the younger brother of Jesus, isn't anything you'll get to know here. Religion almost doesn't play any part in this movie at all, so that the cross Lian gives her husband is simply a small wink to those, who have some knowledge about Chinese history.
On several occasions we get to see the suffering of the people, depicted by dull, greyish colors, which all visualize the desperation the people of that time had to struggle with. During the many battles we also get a view on the physical suffering, sometimes portrayed in shockingly evident and brutal scenes.
The Taiping-Rebellion was one of the bloodiest wars in history, and in numbers only is exceeded by World War II. 20-30 mio. people died in that war or because of famines. In one note at the beginning of the film the estimated number of deaths is even 70 mio, a number that probably can be as true as any other one between this and the former one. Apart from said note during the opening, director Chan doesn't take any measures to dive deeper into the political entanglements of that time.
Peter Chan ("Perhaps Love", "He's a woman, she's a man") mainly focuses on the blood brotherhood between the three main protagonists. Which shouldn't come as a surprise since the movie is loosely based on Chang Cheh's classic "Blood Brothers". The "heroes" of the film, which they also refer themselves as throughout the movie, are everything but your standard knights in shining armor. In order to achieve what they believe in, they have to make decisions only few can approve. Thus, there are for instance 4000 soldiers slaughtered, even though they have already surrendered. Every one of the main characters actually does only what he thinks is right. That doesn't reduce the severeness of their actions, yet it hinders us from simply seeing them as evil monsters. With some of their decisions they might provoke getting the viewer's hatred, but the inner struggle they have to battle out, is often conveyed convincingly, sometimes even in the form of a tear running down the cheek of a general who has to listen to the death cries of the people he just ordered to be executed.
"The Warlords" can be quite complex when it comes to the depiction of its characters, at other times, however, the script misses to bestow some more color upon the protagonists, or to make them more accessable for the viewer in some way. The emotional involvement of the audience into the events on screen remains shallow, because Pang, Zhao and Jiang make sacrifices on their journey, that we can't relate to, and which to a certain degree even deprive them of their humanity. This is also pretty apparent when it comes to Takeshi Kanershiro's ("House of Flying Daggers", "Returner") character, since he acts almost solely according to his ideology, which makes him do certain things we can't comprehend. Nevertheless, this ambivalence is most noticable when looking at Jet Li's character. He has his reasons to do what he does, but we still despise him for that. In contrast to that, there is the love story with Lian, so that we just don't know what to think of him. One moment he punishes some of his soldiers with death, because they raped some innocent women, and the next moment he perpetrates a bloodbath on innocent people. No matter how you look at it we can never approve his decisions, but maybe he knows this and accepted that as his fate.
In fact, there is only Andy Lau ("Infernal Affairs", "A Battle of Wits") left who might serve as some kind of character the audience can relate to, but even he fails in doing so. But don't get me wrong! Acting-wise the depicted portrayals are really fantastic! Only Kaneshiro's character oftentimes remains a bit too shallow. However, especially Jet Li can move in some of his more emotional scenes and proves that there is actually an actor hiding in him. It almost seems as if he wants to wander new paths now, and as things are he even might be successful.
There is a lot of melodrama to be found in "The Warlords", which is everything but subtly woven into the plot, still, interestingly enough it also doesn't feel contrived either. This is a balancing act Peter Chan pulled off he deserves some credit for. Nevertheless, as already stated before, there are still enough factors that hinder the movie to have the emotional impact that could have been possible and desirable.
In his 40 mio. Dollar epic Chan throws in some impressive battle scenes along with well-done CGI-effects, which underline the epic nature of the film in an appealing way. The fights aren't your HK-over-the-top style, but are very realistic in tone, thus providing no aesthetical moves. Which just fits well into the movie's overall tone. The mood is more than anything else captured by the beautiful cinematography of Arthur Wong ("Double Vision", "Silk"), which along with the lavish sets and costumes creates an impressive world. The only thing that remains a big question is why the soundtrack had to copy so many tunes from Hans Zimmer works? "Gladiatior", "Last Samurai" and "Pirates of the Carribian" (ok, latter one is from Klaus Badelt, a student of Zimmer) - you can make out almost whole tracks of these scores here and it's really annoying... Especially since there were some reputed composers involved here. Kwong Wing Chan, Peter Kam and Leon Ko are all very well known for their own outstanding original compositions. So hearing this kind of score is quite strange, and maybe just shows that the movie solely aims at being entertaining and appealing to an international audience by implementing well-tried stuff...
At the end, "The Warlords" sadly also loses some of its momentum and maneuvers itself into a finale, that can only be called satisfying to a small degree, as we didn't only expected things to happen like they do, but even hoped so secretly. Nonethless, "The Warlords" is an interesting and entertaining war epic, which can score with its atypical main characters and its beautiful pictures.