The grim face of wushu.
Warlords represents something of a companion piece to John Woo's Red Cliff, of which we spoke recently. While that was set in the dim and distant past, full of vibrant colours and glorious shiny happy warfare, Warlords presents a far more bleak view of the business of staving people's heads in.
From the outset it's clear that this is going to be one of these 'war is hell' sort of films, what with our introduction to General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) essentially being him digging himself out from underneath a pile of his own dead soldiers after being betrayed by their allies in the Kui Army and left desperately outnumbered. Staggering away from the battlefield and his commission, he eventually collapses but is taken by a passing woman, Lian (Jinglei Xu), to her town.
A town, it seems, where the only industry is banditry. With the country in the grip of civil war, famine and poverty are everywhere and it seems that the only way the townsfolk can afford to eat is by the risky business of robbing well guarded army supply trains. Having little better to do, Pang takes part in one of these raids proving his bravery and utility to town leader Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau) and his right hand man and blood brother Jian Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
This sort of behaviour invites retaliation, the only real surprise being that the Kui army just take their stuff back rather than kill everyone. Nonetheless, it's enough to convince Pang that the only way to keep the town safe is to take the eight hundred men of fighting age off to join the opposing army under Pang's old lord. He convinces Zhao, and the unexpectedly competent soldiers form the backbone of Pang's new command which he uses to put down rebellions in the South with unexpected success.
This success brings with it enemies, and it's not long before agitators in the Imperial Court are organising against Pang while the deep bonds he had formed with Zhao and Jiang are coming under strain, in part caused by Zhao and Pang loving the same woman (the aforementioned Lian, incidentally), but more due to some difficult decisions / war crimes that Pang reluctantly feels he must commit to achieve his aim of ending the hurtful civil war.
Set in the late nineteenth century, although barring a very few cannons and rifles you'd be forgiven for thinking it far older, I can only assume that the shortages that envelop the land encompass fabric dye as well. Having been used to the Hero et al ludicrously colourful, romanticised warfare of the previous epics, Warlords represents by far the brownest vision of war yet seen on mainland China. It is unrelentingly dull, dirty and dusty, and while that starts out as being a welcome change before long the sheer grim-ness of it all becomes somewhat overwhelming.
Which is perhaps the intention, as it's not exactly the most upbeat of films. There's little glory in the battles shown here, and Li is called upon to show some of the difficult, unpleasant decisions that must be made. That's right, with acting and talking and everything, and it may come as a surprise to those who have only watched his Hollywood based stuff to see that he's pretty decent at it. He does also get to hack a few people up as well, for the traditionalists amongst us.
While there's little wrong with Li performance, he's perhaps a little outclassed by his supporting acts. Then again, they are Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro, so there's little shame in that. In fact, there's little wrong with anything in Warlords that I can come up with that's more than trivia, so I'm left a little puzzled as to why I can't bring myself to be more enthusiastic about it. It has all of the elements I normally like, so I can only assume the reasons I'm not raving about it is that it's so very, very brown.
So, perhaps it's not the most visually appealing film of the year, and there's possibly an argument that it's reaching for a more epic feel than it manages to grasp, regardless of how many extras it has lying around playing dead. Perhaps the tensions between the leads aren't of the most original in nature, and perhaps the dirty brown grim war is hell-ness is undermined somewhat by still featuring fairly silly feats of chop-sockey by the leads. On reflection, I suppose there are a few reasons why this might not work for some, but none of those points particularly bother me. I'm only bothered by how brown it was.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Wai Man Yip
Andy Lau (Zhao Erhu)
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Jiang Wuyang)
Jinglei Xu (Lian)