Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Who knew Jet Li could actually act as well as cave in you skull with a roundhouse kick? Since Li made the decision to stop doing Martial Arts films, I was a little concerned only because I believe the first film he made after that decision was ‘War’ with Jason Stratham, and if that film was any indication as to where he was taking his career then I was of the opinion he needed to make another ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ flick as soon as possible. But with this grand and gritty epic ‘The Warlords’ Li has made the best movie of his I’ve seen in years, if not the best movie he’s ever made in this retelling of the classic Qing Dynasty Chinese war story.

Our film opens with a slaughter. Hundreds of soldiers are under siege by thousands of soldiers with the offensive soldiers taking great care in making sure that every single one of the enemy soldiers is dead. Inexplicably these soldiers failed to eliminate the leader of this set of troops, General Pang (Jet Li), who cowardly played dead hiding under the carcasses of his troops until the marauding forces left the premises. Discretion IS the better part of valor they say. The beaten general stumbles down a path but collapses in exhaustion, but to his good fortune he is found and taken in for the night by a local woman, Lian (Jinglei Xu), who feeds him and even shares his bed, which in hindsight was probably an ill-advised discretion.

Pang rids himself of all of his army ornaments, with the exception of his shoes which catch the attention Zhang Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who is the sub-leader of a group a rebel bandits who survive by stealing from the army for the sole purpose of feeding their people during these insanely difficult times. This prompts Zhang to attempt to kill Pang, who he suspects may be part of the army but Pang easily fends him off and impresses Zhang enough that he decides to introduce him to his brother Er-Hu (Andy Lau). This meeting between Pang and the passionate Er-Hu sets in motion a series of events. Pang proves to be a worthy warrior in battle, saving Zhang’s life. He convinces Er-Hu, after a defacing raid by government soldiers, that their lives as bandits must end and the only way to gain respect and guns is to join the army. Most importantly he learns that this woman Lian, who he has fallen in love with, belongs to Er-Hu.

Pang, Zhang and Er-Hu take an oath to be brothers, vowing to kill anyone who comes between a brother, kill a brother who hurts another brother, and become fierce warriors under the strict leadership of Pang who has a much greater vision for China. Their friendship will become tested, loyalties will be questioned and bonds will be broken leading one of the brothers questioning the priorities of these three men and what they truly stand for.

Simply taken on a visual and visceral level, ‘The Warlords’ is a great, great movie. The battle sequences are intense, violent and brutal. Director Peter Chan places us in the middle of this action and pulls no punches… well maybe he pulls some punches as there is a decided lack of blood in the numerous killings, but that’s just a casual observation and not a criticism. Despite the fact there is much more beneath this movie than simply its war and battle sequences, you could probably watch it as simply an action flick and have a damn good time. What Chan has done that sets his film apart is that he taken three of the biggest names in Asian cinema, the action star Li, the teen idol Kaneshiro, and the ‘actor’ Lau (Though some would argue this hasn’t always been the case), and given these three men the ability to create real, authentic characters who resonate off the screen. The performances by these three where phenomenal, and this is not to short shrift Jinglei Xu who also gives a multi-layered complex performance, but the film belonged to Jet Li and Andy Lau.

The characters of Pang and Er-Hu were very similar in their drive, ambition and passion but different in tone and view. Both men were presented as people who wanted to do the right thing, however Er-Hu’s vision was more on a personal level where Pang had a ‘Big Picture’ sensibility to his actions. However it was clear that some of Pang’s vision was certainly clouded by some of his actions, perhaps even being blinded by an ambition that he didn’t possess when the film started, but his was the driving force as the film came to its conclusion. Kaneshiro’s Zhang, who served as narrator of this particular story, his character serving as a buffer, loyal to the two the brothers and the blood oath they took, Er-Hu loyal to what he can see and Pang loyal to the vision beyond.

‘The Warlords’ is gritty, dirty, violent film that offers the viewer no antagonist to root against, only characters doing what they feel is in the best interest of what they feel they are loyal too, with some of those actions being completely reprehensible. Be it for the outstanding action sequences or to see a surprising star turn turned by Jet Li, master thespian, this is a film you simply can’t go wrong with.

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