Three blood brothers find their oath tested by battle and personal rivalry in “The Warlords,” a meaty drama of friendship, ambition and betrayal set during a bloody civil war in 19th-century China. Laden with gritty action, but with an emotional undertow that carries the drama even through its weaker moments, pic reps a strong comeback by Hong Kong helmer-producer Peter Chan after his wobbly musical “Perhaps Love” and provides Jet Li with a satisfying non-chopsocky showcase. Platforming at a major European fest could provide the nudge this $40 million blockbuster needs for Western sales.
Since its mid-December release in Chinese-speaking East Asia, pic has already notched up socko business, grossing over $35 million in China alone, plus a comparable amount offshore. In the West, it’s more of a specialist item, with none of the operatic visuals of Zhang Yimou’s recent martial-arts epics and no flashy wire-fu to attract a broader demographic.
Pic is essentially a costume war drama, with some spectacular action but a downbeat anti-war message and nihilistic tone that come close at times to WWI and WWII yarns. In its dust-and-guts setpieces, pic recalls another Andy Lau starrer, “A Battle of Wits,” though the desaturated color and wintry look are closer to the first half of Feng Xiaogang’s “Assembly,” with which “Warlords” went head-to-head over the holiday period.
Picture was originally intended as a remake of the 1973 Shaw Bros. classic “The Blood Brothers” (aka “Chinese Vengeance”), helmed by the late Chang Cheh. But after four years and eight credited scripters, it’s ended up as a big-budget war drama inspired, like “The Blood Brothers,” by the July 1870 assassination of Gen. Ma Xinyi by his friend, Zhang Wenxiang, but sans martial arts. The names of the three main characters have been changed, though their story still follows the Shaws’ movie in very broad terms.
Background is the Taiping Rebellion, led by a wacko visionary who thought he was related to Jesus Christ, against the equally corrupt Qing dynasty. Result was a 14-year civil war that, per opening caption, claimed 70 million lives (“equaling the recorded death toll from WWII”).
As pic opens in an orgy of hacked bodies, sole survivor of the bloodbath is Qing general Pang Qingyun (Li). Traumatized, he’s taken in by a kindly young peasant, Lian (Xu Jinglei), and temporarily ends up in her bed.
Subsequently falling in with a bandit gang led by Zhao Erhu (Lau) and sidekick Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Pang saves Jiang’s life, and the three men swear blood brotherhood in a ritual that involves their slicing three strangers’ throats. The bad news — and a future faultline in the fraternal bond — is that Lian is Zhao’s wife.
After establishing basic relationships, the drama fans out on a larger stage, as Pang persuades the bandits to fight on the side of the government — largely so he can avenge himself on a rival general. First major action setpiece, a seemingly hopeless assault on Shi City, has the onetime bandits emerging triumphant. But as they go on to bigger game — the long blockade of Suzhou City — Zhao becomes more and more estranged from Pang as the latter adopts a ruthlessly militaristic, personally ambitious approach.
The half-hour Suzhou sequence, with its bleak scenes of trenches filled with starving soldiers, contains both the most direct parallels to 20th-century war pics and the movie’s most emotionally powerful moments. Li’s tight, contained playing (always his strongest suit) comes into its own here, and carries his character through the final act, as he takes on the trappings of a true warlord.
Script’s main weakness is the love story between Pang and Lian, which is reduced to a few soapy moments despite being crucial to the brotherhood’s breakup. A very deglamorized Xu makes the most of the material she’s given, but Li, never convincing as a screen lover, strikes no sparks with her, weakening the impact of the final reels.
Despite that, and even with a perf by Lau that develops some real heft in the middle going, “Warlords” is still Li’s movie, seemingly justifying the reportedly huge chunk of the budget that went toward his fee alone. Partly thanks to Chan’s direction and the bulky, rough-edged costumes, Li dominates the drama whenever he’s onscreen. Of the three leads, Kaneshiro comes across the weakest, largely just looking conflicted.
Given the amount of material here — including political machinations by a Greek chorus of mandarins back in Beijing — the running time feels a little squeezed, though Wenders Li’s fluid editing packs a lot in without any sense of rush. Background score, by several hands, teeters between fine and poor, with one particularly weak moment during the Shi City setpiece. Battle scenes, by ace action director Ching Siu-tung, have a clean sense of geography and a style best described as exaggerated realism. (At least one sequence, involving cannons, is a screen first.)
For the record, “The Warlords” is the first Chinese costumer in memory to include Christian iconography as part of the dramatic fabric — though curiously between Pang and Lian, rather than just on the Taiping rebels’ side.