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Epic Warlords fights a losing battle
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Epic Warlords fights a losing battle

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Warlords
Opening April 16


I feel like I saw Peter Chan's The Warlords ages ago. Granted, the first time I came across the picture was during the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival, so I guess you could say that feeling is more or less true. The Chinese war epic has taken what seems like an eternity to reach domestic theatres, with Magnet Releasing finally taking a chance on the picture and giving it a limited release before shuffling it off to Blu-ray and DVD later this year.

To be honest, it's easy to see why it has taken so long for the film to see the light of day. Although Jet Li gives a strong and stirring performance as central figure general Pang Qingyun, and while a few of the epic battle sequences - most notably the half-hour-long blockade of Suzhou City and the early assault on Shi City - are downright extraordinary, the melodramatics at the center of it all range from banal to outright silly. What should be a massive WWII-style war-is-hell allegory instead devolves into an absurdly turgid love triangle that barely kept my attention.

The basic plot is set during the Taiping Rebellion and revolves around Qing Dynasty General Pang, the sole survivor of a massive bloodbath. Traumatized, he's rescued by lovely peasant Lian (Xu Jinglei), who gives him back his resolve as his thirst for vengeance grows.

Through her he is led to bandit leader Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau) and his trusted sidekick Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). After he saves Zhao's life, Pang forms a brotherly bond with the two warriors, and the trio ultimately engages in a battle to support the government in a somewhat secret endeavor and for revenge on the rival general responsible for the earlier massacre.

All this is just fine, but director Peter Chan handles it all with a dour solemnity that quickly becomes tiresome. Additionally, other than the finely crafted character he's handed Li to play, the remainder of the cast are all stuck playing two-dimensional caricatures. Even the usually reliable Kaneshiro looks particularly lost as he tries to make the most of things.

On the plus side, the battle sequences are truly sensational. Noted Hong Kong action impresario Ching Siu-tung (The Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers) simply outdoes himself here - one set piece involving some cannons is beyond stunning. There is a dug-in, gritty realism to the sieges that is emotionally devastating, and the human price of the conflict is a bloodstained tragedy that's beyond belief.

But ultimately, none of this ends up mattering. The love story involving Pang, Lian, and Zhao is annoying and would be a better fit in a Harlequin romance. The political machinations at the heart of all the military conflict is also never explored as fully as they should be, and it feels as if large parts of the narrative have been excised for no apparent reason. A lot of the film has the aura of being peculiarly unfinished, and part of me can't help but wonder why Chan would bother hinting at so much if he wasn't even going to take the time to delve into all the goings-on with greater detail.

I wish I liked The Warlords more than I do. Li really does give one of his very best performances, and some of the battle sequences are certainly extraordinary. But the plot is a messy canvas of melodrama and political imbroglio that doesn't make the grade, and while less is usually more in striving for brevity, coherence is the biggest victim laid to waste on Chan's cinematic battlefield.

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