Directed by: Peter Chan || Produced by: Peter Chan, Andre Morgan
Screenplay by: Xu Lan, Chun Tin-nam, Aubery Lam, Huang Jianxin, Jojo Hui, He Jiping, Guo Junli, James Yuen || Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei
Music by: Chan Kwong-wing, Peter Kam, Chatchai Ponprapaphan, Leon, Ko || Cinematography: Arthur Wong || Editing by: Wenders Li || Country: Hong Kong, China || Language: Mandarin
Running Time: 127 minutes
Given mainland China’s censorship policies regarding art, speech, and the press, a considerable portion of the nation’s films have turned to historical settings to frame their narratives in order to avoid conflicts with the Chinese government on matters of film content and message. Film’s like the recent historical epic Red Cliff (RC, 2009) are representative of much of Chinese cinema nowadays, though the size and scale of something such as RC remains beyond most Chinese flicks. Peter Chan’s The Warlords is a likeminded picture that revels in the fantasy and spectacle of period conflicts to arouse its drama. In the case of The Warlords as it was with RC, national scrutiny on artistic content does not seem to negatively affect the quality of these historical dramatizations, even if the near constant emphasis on period genre is repetitive.
Chan’s Warlord’s breaks little ground in light of the industry’s trends, but it executes a tried and true national formula by boasting impressive action sequences and dedicated performances on the part of leads Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Andy Lau. In many ways, it does much of what RC did but in a far more efficient manner. The riveting battle scenes and lead performances are every bit as accomplished as in John Woo’s latest epic, and one could argue they are even better. Admittedly, Warlords runs into pacing problems in its second half due to poor placement of the flashy action sequences, but altogether, the film packs a visceral wallop that’s rarely matched by other historical epics, either foreign or domestic. It’s an impressive combination of strong production values, great action sequences, consistent performances, and a memorable story.
One thing that surprised me in this movie was Li’s performance. Having previously only been introduced to his American films, I was impressed at how much better an actor the man is when he’s speaking in his native language. He steals the show and demonstrates a wide dramatic range, being able to act the part of an action star-badass while also showing vulnerability and emotional depth. Kaneshiro and Lau have less colorful characters than Li, but they’re both distinct and written well enough that their chemistry with each other and Li is a major selling point of the movie.
As for the actions scenes themselves, boy, are they fun. The period warfare is high-octane stuff, showcasing excellent stunts and great choreography. Unlike RC, Warlords has variety in its close-quarters-combat, sporting both large scale battles with dozens of extras as well as more intimate, one-on-one duels.
My only qualms with the film are how the action scenes aren’t spaced out as well as they should be. As a consequence, the pacing drags at times when there’s not much going on in the film besides characters just biding their time. A good portion of the second half of the movie focuses on lengthy siege battles where not much action or drama occurs. It’s a shame because the interpersonal conflicts and action scenes are enthralling. Warlords just needed a bit more editing or another script rewrite to tighten the story’s rhythmic flow. There’s too much time in the second act where not enough action happens.
The story itself is quite competent, though not as flashy as the battle scenes. I didn’t mind the romantic subplot because it’s well integrated with the political backstory and primary bromance between the three male leads. The love triangle is actually important to the plot — it’s not a sloppily executed afterthought like most action movie romances are. It provides motivation for all three principle characters
The Warlords is a yet another well executed piece of historical fiction from China’s film industry. It’s every bit as technically accomplished as the much more famous Red Cliff while being half has long. It’s great to see Jet Li in his natural environment. He’s far more than the generic Asian martial arts star Hollywood has made him out to be. If China continues to make action movies this good, I won’t mind them having the same historical flavor; especially when considering how uncompromising The Warlords‘ narrative and flawed, yet sympathetic characters are, this is a recommendable action flick beyond just action-junkies. Films like The Warlords are too fun to pass up regardless of genre preconceptions.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jet Li showcases both surprising dramatic acting prowess and expected badass action star-demeanor. He’s an interesting flawed warrior-hero. The Warlords‘ action sequences are impressive and diverse. The screenplay, while second fiddle to the action, is interesting and well put together. The political drama, bromantic character development, and love triangle are well integrated.
— However… parts of the second half can be slow due to some lackluster pacing and sparse action scenes.
? This is what happens when you don’t put bros before hoes.