If Peter Chan's The Warlords had an alternate title, it would well be "800." Here, a band of 800 bandits-cum-soldiers pit themselves courageously against an army of 5,000. But this is no over-the-top tale of the triumph of courage over might like that silly Spartans vs Persians movie.
This is pretty serious stuff. In the midst of all that talk of war, strategising, and bloody action, there's political machinations, tests of brotherhood and friendship, and a love triangle. A pretty nice mesh-up, if only it could have worked extremely well.
First off, this is a very bloody film about ancient warfare. From the very start, director Chan holds nothing back to show that he means this to be realistic as far as the action goes. Limbs are hacked off, bodies blown to pieces and heads lobbed off. It's no graceful martial arts war with wire-work. It's chaotic, and sometimes painful to watch. One particular sequence has an enemy soldier trying to impale Jet Li's General Pang with a long spear. Watch what happens.
Secondly, it's a wonder how many buckets of tears Takeshi Kaneshiro sheds in this film!
Chan drips everything in earthy browns and blacks, lending grittiness to the dusty, war-torn landscape of 19th century China, under the Qing dynasty rule. This could easily have been an all-out action version of Sun Tzu's Art Of War, but Chan centres the film on three characters, bandits Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Kaneshiro), and General Pang, and their friendship.
Pang is a man with a lot of baggage, who deserts the army after his men are wiped out in a betrayal by the Kiu army. Er Hu and Wu Yang are brother bandits in arms living by their own set of rules. The two recruit Pang into their gang, but when things take a turn for the worse for their village, Pang suggests that they join the Qing army and give up their life of crime. They take a blood oath and a pledge, but the two "brothers" soon find themselves having to adapt to a new set of rules while Pang becomes embroiled in a political web of deceit.
The film begins and enters the midway point being an action film. It certainly has gorgeous shots and compositions, close shots of close combats, exciting camerawork that lends the battles real suspense, and some really audacious set-pieces. But after the halfway point, it seems like even Chan knows the action cannot be sustained without it being repetitious and monotonous. The focus shifts towards drama, the tension between the characters and the political manoeuvres in the dark. In short, the film slowly becomes Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet!
No, I'm kidding, but that second-half sure reminds me of that other film a lot, for some reason.
It's easy to see why Jet Li was given a huge paycheck for this role. The Warlords is essentially General Pang's story and Li carries the film throughout, playing a character who's slowly consumed by his obsessive ambitions. The shift in focus is interesting and a smart move, but the characters are not well-developed enough to make that shift effective. The relationships between them are vague at best, introductions seemingly hurried as if just to forward the story along. It's unclear how Er Hu and Wu Yang became as close as they are, and the love interest, Lian, flits in and out of the story inconsequentially, only appearing solely to throw glances at Er Hu or Pang, or make love to each man. She was rescued from being sold as a courtesan, and feels obligated to her saviour but at the same time, is drawn towards what we can assume as the man she truly loves. But not enough screentime is given for that aspect to really come through.
In the end, no amount of tears shed by Kaneshiro can help imbue more emotions into the film. As such, the Greek tragedy doesn't quite get pulled off, although Li's performance is commendably controlled, the strongest of the three leads.
There are certainly Shakespearean nuances in the story - see the three old men and tell me who they remind you of - but where The Banquet ended with a full spit of deadly venom, The Warlords is more of a quick bite with a little agony.