Just as Hollywood tends to go in cycles, whether it be the recent love for superhero films or the ‘90s glut of Pulp Fiction-style crime movies or the sci-fi/fantasy pictures of the 1980s, the Hong Kong movie industry also tends to make its films in waves. Sure, martial arts films will always be prevalent in Hong Kong, but as the ‘80s and ‘90s saw the emergence of John Woo/gunfight-centric action fare, the late ‘90s and early 2000s saw more CGI-heavy fantasy films and now the post Red Cliff-era has Hong Kong studios pumping out giant historical epics. Films such as Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, The Empress and the Warriors and Battle of the Warriors have all tried to duplicate the success of Red Cliff, but so far have been unable to create the same sense of scale and sweep of John Woo’s masterpiece.
With Peter Chan’s The Warlords, Woo’s film has found its only real rival for scale and intrigue, though this is a very different world than the romanticized ancient China of Red Cliff. The story focuses on three outcasts: a defeated, wandering general (Jet Li), the leader of a group of starving bandits (Andy Lau) and his right hand man (Takeshi Kaneshiro). With disease rampant and their people on the brink of starvation, the men form an alliance and join the army in order to gain fortune. By leading their men against forces opposing the government, the men gain more and more power, but a growing rivalry between the three slowly tears their relationship apart.
Right off the bat, it’s impossible not to see where this film is trying to differentiate itself from John Woo’s giant saga. The Warlords is almost a colorless picture next to Red Cliff; a gritty movie determined to show how horrible extended periods of war can be on a people. Combatants are often caked in mud and blood, their suffering obvious to the naked eye. Rather than an adventure, this is a war film, unafraid to show how atrocious people can be to each other in order to gain power. Victories and happiness are kept to a minimum, and even a romantic interlude in the film turns ugly and deceitful as the picture goes on.
Director Peter Chan perhaps goes too far in his depiction of suffering in this film, not giving us enough revelry and camaraderie to show us why we should keep focused on this relationship between these men. All performances are solid, but the film seems to undercut its own story by either making their characters too serious or obviously power-hungry, which is the case with Jet Li’s Qingyun or too dour, as it is with Andy Lau’s Erhu. Only the character of Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) manages to show us a wide range of emotion and acts as a strong glue holding this group together, trying desperately to clasp their trio in one piece while the other members struggle for the upper hand.
Thankfully, the film’s action is expertly constructed, especially an enormous battle in the film’s center with gallons of magnificent bloodletting. While Jet Li gets to really show off his action chops, the sequence never wanders too far from reality. Actions are brawny and heroic, but not ridiculous, and actually compares well with the best clashes from Braveheart and Gladiator. Arrows fly and limbs are severed, and the chaos is well orchestrated, making for the movie’s best moments by far. In fact, if the energy from the film’s action had somehow bled into the drama of The Warlords the movie would be a tour de force.
As it is, this is a passable war epic with terrific costumes, design-work and amazing battles, but unfortunately can’t seal the deal when it comes to its dramatic elements. The picture manages to telegraph its movements too often and just when it gives you a real moment of human emotion, formulaic melodrama again rears its ugly head. This is an admirable attempt by all involved and the final result isn’t necessarily bad, but in the end The Warlords manages to be a missed opportunity rather than a satisfying story of war and loss.
Magnolia Home Entertainment’s release of The Warlords is pretty gorgeous on Blu-ray, with its saturated image coming in with amazing detail on this disc. The sound quality is also excellent, highlighting every severed leg and bone crunch with terrific intensity.
The Making of The Warlords – I don’t know if these were webisodes, but there are several different “behind the scenes” vignettes that add up to around 38 minutes of footage. This is actually a neat account of the production, covering all kinds of aspects of the film making. Anytime you have a big film like this it’s going to be a rough shoot, and these featurettes just show how difficult it was.
The Warlords’ 117 Days: A Production Journal – This is an even better look at the making of this film, this documentary goes into great detail about the film’s journey from genesis to completion. This goes about 35 minutes and has great interviews and behind the scenes footage.
The Warlords: Behind the Scenes Special – This is a more traditional featurette with interviews and talking heads. This one runs about 18 minutes or so.
HDNet: A Look at ‘The Warlords – Short but sweet, this HD feature on the Blu-ray is an interview with director Peter Chan as he discusses the production and his influences on the film.
Deleted and Extended scenes – There are 50 minutes of deleted scenes here, including a gruesome alternate ending.
The Warlords is a good film with great battle scenes, but just doesn’t manage to be as rousing as the best epics tend to be. This disc does the movie proud though, giving us a terrific presentation, as well as packing it with plenty of special features. For Jet Li fans, this is a recommendation, for everyone else maybe not so much.
Magnolia Home Entertainment presents The Warlords. Directed by: Peter Chan. Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro. Written by: Xu Lan, Chun Tin-Nam, Aubery Lam, Huang Jian Xin, Jojo Hui, He Jiping, Guo Jun Li, and James Yuen. Running time: 113 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: June 29, 2010.
Robert Sutton feels the most at home when he's watching some movie scumbag getting blown up, punched in the face, or kung fu'd to death, especially in that order. He's a founding writer for the movies section of Insidepulse.com, featured in his weekly column R0BTRAIN's Badass Cinema as well as a frequent reviewer of DVDs and Blu-rays. Also, he's a proud Sony fanboy, loves everything Star Wars and Superman related and hopes to someday be taken seriously by his friends and family.