If the second hour – even last half hour – of The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong) had been as good as its first hour, I would have considered it close to a reinvention of the Chinese wuxia epic, a response to Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts trilogy. The anti-Hero, if you will.
The cast (Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro), setting (1860′s civil war) and budget ($40 million) certainly indicate that its ambitions are on that level, yet it fails on the homestretch. It could have been on par with Yimou’s work, by challenging the superficial foundations those films lie on, but in what I can only see as cowardice, or some sort of cultural blindness, in the last act it reverts back to the clichés of the genre, shooting itself in the foot.
Because unlike Yimou’s films this film actually seemed to aim for some form of realism. The cast spends most of the film covered in dirt and mud, continually surrounded by swirling dust. Unlike previous lush epics The Warlords palette seems restricted to different shades of grey and brown. Also, there is precious little wire-fu.
The best thing about the film is that its characters actually change over the course of the film. Jet Li (receiving a record for an Asian actor, $13 million) stars as Ma Xinyi, an officer who has just lost all his men. Li isn’t a great actor, his range is limited, but this is probably the best part he’ll ever play; a cowardly general who slowly turns righteous.
After escaping from defeat the general encounters a band of bandits led by Cao Eh-Ru (Andy Lau from House of Flying Daggers and Infernal Affairs) and his right-hand man Zhang Wei-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro, also from House of Flying Daggers). After a series of events they end up fighting for the Qing Dynasty they all hate.
The themes of brotherhood, what constitutes a right choice and how much we are willing to sacrifice of others, are all dealt with pretty well. There’s a love triangle involving Pang and Zhao’s wife (well played by Xu Jinglei, herself an accomplised director) which in hindsight the film might have been better without, despite the novelty of seeing a Chinese actress without tons of make-up.
The film has several great battle scenes, one in particular. It’s in these where the first hint of trouble comes. There’s still some wire-fu. It never goes as far as flying, but the film just becomes more and more of this. In the last act of the film it fully reverts back to the inherent clichés of the genre. Men screaming out for their tortured souls, slo-mo martial arts in falling rain, misunderstandings with tragic consequences, lovers trapped by destiny, etc.
This is of course all part of the genre. It’s just too bad that an ambition to actually make something different wasn’t followed through. It’s still a good film, with many praise-worthy aspects to it, that I recommend to lovers of Asian cinema and fans of Yimou’s trilogy of martial arts films.