Warlords, The (2007) – movie review

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Movie Review by Samuel Taradash

Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinlei, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo

Director: Peter Chan

Assuming you have a fondness for large-scale war epics or a passing interest in the Taiping Rebellion of 1850, then you could do worse than to watch THE WARLORDS. Despite the presence of martial arts superstar Jet Li, the film’s main concern is with bonds between men at war and how they are affected by the fates of armies, the intrigues at court, and the human struggles for power. A few sequences show the more artistic choreography people may expect of Jet Li, but the film is heavy with the dirt, smoke and brutality of real war, and avoids of the stylized beauty of a film like THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.

Pang Qing-yun (Li) is the only survivor of a failed attack on the rebels of Taiping. Starving, alone, and dispirited, he is taken in by Lian (Xu Jinlei), a beautiful local woman who nurses him back to health. She vanishes, leaving Pang to fall in with young bandit Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the leader of the bandit clan, Er-Hu (Andy Lau). There he discovers that Lian is the wife of Er-Hu. But he also realizes that the bandit clan might provide his way back to military command. Pang allies himself with Wu-Yang and Er-Hu, and the three swear an oath of mutual allegiance, alliance and protection. But where Wu-Yang fights for friendship and Er-Hu fights to provide for his village and his men, Pang has greater goals in mind. And as his ambitions rise, the three are drawn in very personal ways into the bloodiest of struggles in Chinese history.

During some two decades of fighting, the actual Taiping rebellion is estimated to have cost the lives of over 20 million soldiers and civilians. This film tries avoids glamorizing the conflict, showing the filth, privation, loneliness and death that typified war. But it does cast the most romantic of lights on the bond between the three protagonists. The film is meant to look at the bonds between these three men and how they are tested by both the war and the politics behind it. Given their very different goals and natures, it’s not always easy to believe in the reality of their companionship. And a subplot involving a love affair feels totally unnecessary and somewhat out of character for everyone involved. However, the actors do an admirable job, with Andy Lau bringing particular depth to the conflicted Er-Hu.

Visually, the film is almost diametrically opposed to recent Chinese films like HERO or CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. Instead of their vibrant play of color, WARLORDS is bleak. The battle scenes are painted with smoke and dust, and the very human soldiers are faded and starving, wrapped in layers of frayed, ragged clothes. The world is fully realized, and a moving setting. THE WARLORDS is not an easy film to watch, but it is very well made.

5 out of 6 stars

DVD information:

The 2-disc DVD for THE WARLORDS is distributed by Metrodome Group UK. Disc one is devoted to the feature film. Disc two includes a 35-minute production documentary, a 36-minute collection of interviews and commercial spots featuring the cast and crew, a selection of deleted scenes, the UK trailer and a text summary of the historical inspiration for the story.

The feature film is clear, with sharp, accurate colors and standard sound options of 5.1 DTS, 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. With the exception of the UK trailer, all audio is in the original Chinese, but all features on both discs offer clear, well-written English subtitles.