War never changes. We may have developed advanced techniques and weaponry, but in essence, war is still the same as it was thousands of years ago. Battles are still being fought for reasons both justified and ridiculous. Blood is still being spilled in order to achieve money, land or control.
That is why the opening scene of Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s “The Warlords” is so powerful. It portrays nothing but destruction. There are thousands of soldiers slaughtering each other simply because they want honor, while the higher-ups controlling the heat of the battle only want control.
In this pivotal scene, we are introduced to General Pang, played by Jet Li. Surprisingly, Pang survives this ordeal but dishonors his name in the process. It is explicit that Pang loses a part of himself when he plays dead and watches his men die before his eyes in order to sustain his own life.
This is the reason Pang joins a band of bandits led by Er Hu (played by Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). It is obvious these men want nothing but redemption — Pang for abandoning his squad and Er Hu and Wu Yang for performing acts of thievery (among other illegal acts). But the way they go about it, makes us, as the audience, lose faith in these men.
Determined to take an oath, Pang, Yang and Hu become “blood brothers” by killing three innocent villagers. As these men become soldiers of their land, they do go through metamorphosis and, arguably, redeem themselves for the act of terror the oath brought — but it’s almost impossible to trust the words of Yang when he preaches peace for all one scene and kills one of those he seeks to protect in another.
But, in the film’s defense, at least the characters have substance. The problem with some Chinese war films, such as “Red Cliff,” is that the characters lack personality. Most of these protagonists are just thrown in without explanation or back-story and are presented simply as ruthless warlords and calculating army generals. It’s impossible to connect to such stoic personas, whereas in “The Warlords,” there is a sense of humanity even through the deceitful actions these protagonists take.
Another thing this genre of film is known for is excellent action choreography. Ching Siu-Tung, the action director of “The Warlords,” whose credits also include “House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero,” and “Shaolin Soccer,” does a great job at the film’s large-scale action sequences. However, there are moments of immaturity that could have been cut.
Another problem shared with similar films is length. “The Warlords” is unnecessarily long and there are dull moments that seem to drag on forever. But, overall, there are memorable scenes that make Chan’s latest endeavor worth watching. One such scene is when Hu stands on top of a sea of dead bodies — the sheer visual horror is just truly breath-taking.
As the film reaches its end and a love-triangle and clashing interests tear apart these brothers, the film uses all of its reserved steam. The third act flows naturally and the ending is extremely satisfying.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s “The Warlords” may not be original but it does add personality to the genre, making the film worth watching.
. . .
Follow Mariusz Zubrowski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ItsJustMariusz.