Note: This review, and the film's star rating, covers the 113-minute International Cut of Peter Ho-Sun Chan's film.
For years, martial arts enthusiasts clamored for an on-screen pairing between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, which culminated into the flighty but juvenile Forbidden Kingdom. The story built around them creaked and splintered, collapsing under the weight of the two stars as they peppered the film with a handful of semi-gripping square-offs. A similar anticipation could be generated for three of Zhang Yimou's key male players -- Jet Li, along with House of Flying Daggers' Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro -- to find their way together amid crossing blades and flying fists. That trio of actors instead welds together in Peter Ho-Sun Chan's historical epic The Warlords, yet it's under a veil of dusty, intentionally harsh cinematography and contains a wealth of blade-wielding battles between full battalions of soldiers. As much as I'd enjoy turning around and saying that the actors, the grand-scale bellicose warfare, and the historically-rooted context completely make us forget that they didn't come together under different circumstances, that's simply not the case.
Alternately titled "Blood Brothers" before settling on The Warlords, the film takes us into 1860s China during the Taiping Rebellion. After surviving a brutal battle by hiding under the bodies of his squad's slain soldiers, General Pang (Li) feebly walks away from the battlefield until he collapses. He's nursed to health by a woman named Lian (Xu Jinglei) who's left a bandit camp, and her husband, in search of a life beyond poor conditions. Pang soon links up with the band of ragtag bandits, led by two brothers, the woman's husband Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and his younger second-in-command Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who do all they can to find food for the outfit. As the times grow tougher and their food supply ebbs and flows, leading to famine and desperation while Pang slowly begins to take on a leadership role, the band decide to join the Qing army for the purposes of nourishment and security for their families from the military -- as well as giving General Pang a chance to quench his desire to free all people from oppression. Of course, warfare's mongering nature eventually contorts their views, growing more intense as the brothers become more war-hardened and set in their values.
The setup sounds inspiring and patriotic, likened to the attitude that Braveheart projects amid its calls to "freedom", and in a roundabout fashion similar to Gibson's portrayal of William Wallace, The Warlords depicts the crumble of brotherhood amid political string-pulling and the love of a woman. What Peter Chang's epic lacks is a sense of shrewd storytelling within the historically resonant tale of determination and anxiety, merely lumbering along from battle after battle, years-long time jump after time jump, with bloated delivery. Facial hair, suits of armor, and the actors' performances change with the times, but the story's time-lapsed structure, though sturdy enough to prop up the trio of actors, doesn't convey the energy that would draw us into the blood brothers' long-winded journey through military turmoil. Mostly, the activity's too operatic in poise and streamlined in dramatic allure during its bursts, built simply so these cornerstones of Chinese cinema can clank blades, act boldly against one another, and satisfy the audience's anticipation for their screen time.
They do satisfy, of course, because all three are impressive performers outside of their martial arts namesakes. Jet Li finds a much more resonant dramatic center when enveloped in his native language, which commands The Warlords' drive with a vein of meaningful vigor. The energy in his eyes here harkens to that of his turns in Hero and Fearless, while also reminding everyone of how his pain-stricken glances are able to make the dour, raw premise in Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) work. Li carries the reflective nature of General Pang, a man who's witnessed death abound, with a level of legitimacy that towers above the film's core veracity. In essence, this is his story of regaining composure after his life-altering defeat, and how he handles the character -- as well as the budding relationship with his blood brother Er-Hu's wife, Lian, finely handled by Xu Jinglei -- makes for what's easily one of the highlights in Peter Chan's overstuffed picture.
Similar can be said for Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro riffs off his regular period-piece performances, a far cry from his role in Chan's romance Perhaps Love yet differing little from his poise in House of Flying Daggers, but it works for the character that's lowest on the hierarchical totem pole. Andy Lau, on the other hand, again catches my eye with his severity, finding a center within the "man of reason" amid the trio that matches well against General Pang's blunt-headed yet noble nature. When they're all three together on-screen, however, it's simply too much for Chan's ho-hum construction to control. Scenes where they appeal to the Qing Dynasty lords for supplies and men, along with a particular sequence that determines the fate of 4,000 enemy soldiers, stray from legitimacy and hone in on cringe-worthy jerks, gasps, and facial expressions, over-dramatizing what could've been compelling sequences with a steadier directorial hand.
Within all that, The Warlords attempts to carve a name for itself as a raucous battle-heavy production of the Qing Dynasty's later days, and those abundant sequences do sate a desire for visceral, grand-scaled weapons combat. There's a particular dervish near the core of the film that's mesmerizing to witness, with horse-mounted soldiers swirling about their enemies with a sense of impressive grandeur. Impalements and limb-chopping occurs left and right, especially once scene involving a thick-bladed spear (dao) and no less than seven legs being lopped off at once, which gets the blood spewing onto the dusty battlefield. If orchestration of these sequences is all you're really wanting to digest, then you'll certainly get an artistically-presented smattering -- whether the actual emotional context works, or not.
Yet it seems like Peter Chan's historical depiction, photographed with distinction by Iron Monkey cinematographer Arthur Wong and carried by choice performances, clamors for more than just gratuitous bloodshed, and The Warlords doesn't accomplish that. A lot's crammed into the film, including the splintering struggle between the three blood brothers, a muted love triangle, and the misguided development of youthful Wu-Yang into the image of both Er-Hu and Pang, and all its well-conceived and finely-produced elements are somewhat half-heartedly dragged across the finish line. As it ratchets through plot points to the conclusion, swelling larger towards what's, apparently, one of China longest-running unrequited transgressions, it builds up a lot of futile hot air around a textually compelling story, making an otherwise appealing ploy of warfare's fruitless nature and political heartlessness into a pulpy wash. Even as they tease with a swift, sturdy hand-to-hand square-off between two of the film's central entities, a well-choreographed and, admittedly, affecting burst, it can't mask the boldly-delivered but otherwise muffled string of events leading up to its climax.
Magnolia Home Entertainment dish out The Warlords in a standard Blu-ray case, with the artwork and disc label as an alternate take on the international poster work. Unfortunately, they've elected to present the film solely in its International Cut iteration at 113 minutes, which trims thirteen (13) minutes of material from the original cut's 126-minute time. Though the inclusion of the extra footage likely wouldn't change my entire outlook on the picture, and admittedly I've only seen this cut, it's still a shame that the film hasn't been offered in its originally-shown -- and reportedly stronger -- context.
Video and Audio:
This presentation of The Warlords errs towards compelling color timing and contrast usage, retaining golds and dark blues intently within its 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode. In this image from Magnolia, it looks like it's a spawn from the 300-style school of grainy, boosted cinematography, only to a more manageable degree that still offers ravishing detail presentation. The big curiosity lies in whether this is how the film's intended to look, as the deleted/extended scenes offered later on this Blu-ray suggest a more earthy, dusty, terracotta-leaning coloring that mirror the overall feel I was expecting after watching the Chinese-sourced trailers (teaser viewable here) and the making-of features on this very disc -- instead of the coloring in Magnolia/Magnet's trailer (here). Under this aesthetic, the level of detail present in the intricate armor, the range of motion during combat, and the sharp eye for nuance in close-ups are all firm within this highly-capable disc. It just could, very well, be inaccurate to what Peter Chan intended.
Though the Mandarin DTS HD Master Audio track offered here might be active in many facets, that doesn't necessarily mean it's especially potent. Activity pours in from all directions, including ambient sound effects like the clanking of blades and the gallop of horse hooves, yet they flip-flop between satisfyingly stretching across the soundstage and being either flat or thin. The air of battle still generally carries an involving atmosphere that drops us in the middle of the Qing Dynasty warfare, while the verbal clarity from the three primary leads tests the track's fine capacity to preserve pitch. It's not a bad track by any stretch, but there's a general lack of punch noticeable throughout that shrivels the presentation just a bit. Subtitles, which aren't the same text as the awful English dub, are available in English, English Narrative, English Descriptive, and Spanish languages.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD/HD):
Now, there are two separate chunks of footage within this segment of the supplements, roughly twenty-seven (27) minutes of standard-definition deleted scenes and nearly thirty (30) minutes of extended sequences in high-definition. A handful of the initial "deleted" sequences focus on the minor bandits/soldiers in the midst of warfare, focusing on both the pains of battle and the intense starvation they suffer from, which would add a level of gravity around the three leads that would be highly warranted. They also contain extended material involving Pang's aimless wandering at the beginning of the film, which gives us earnest character moments with Lee and strengthens his bond with Er-Hu's wife. A level of overall emotion can be felt in these sequences.
Interestingly, the extended material in the second half, the high-definition content, present something odd: what we've got here, presumably, are the excised sequences from the original cut of the film, possibly from the MegaStar Blu-ray. Along with showing the material that's been trimmed, which is excellent, they showcase the film in a palette that's more in-line with what was expected of The Warlords, focusing on browns, tans, maroon-leaning reds and appropriately lighter black levels. This suggests that Magnolia could, very well, have had the original content for reference and opted to go this route instead. A curiosity for certain, especially with Magnolia's nimble treatment of John Woo's Red Cliff.
Featurettes (38:45, SD):
Though split up into more than a baker's dozen different segments, these snippets are very quick flashes into the construction of specifics in The Warlords. Since each portion lasts between a minute and a half to three minutes, they don't go terribly in-depth, but a few bursts of insightful material about each topic are revealed through interviews with the cast and crew. Here's the breakdown of all the topics: Rage to Riches, The Horses, The Heroes Behind the Scene, The Battlefield is Hell, True Heroes, Fire and Smoke, Life In the Trenches, Daughter of Chaos, Shu City Battle, Action Tells the Story, The Suzhou Massacre, Love, The Fall of the Brotherhood, The Director, and The Actors.
The Warlords 117 Days: A Production Journal (35:22, SD):
This moderate-length collection of daily diary shoots grabs quite a few neat behind-the-scenes bits, including some aggravated blurbs from the actors while on-set. This chronicles some of the backwards events that occurred during the production, from dealing with driving up to the mountains with a huge crew (and the accident that occurred one day), the flu that plagued the set due to the weather, Jet Li's reservation with Peter Chan's ability to shoot the action sequences, some reflection on the intensity of war and the "unglorified" nature of the trenches, and a lengthy expanse of footage featuring Peter Chan and his actors on-tour after the film wrapped.
The Warlords: Behind the Scenes Special (17:45, SD):
Once you get beyond the nearly four minutes of film footage at the beginning of this special, what we've got borderlines on the generic and disposable -- praise for the director, praise for the actors, lots of footage from the film cut in the center, and only a handful of behind-the-scenes shots worth watching the piece for.
Also included are HDNet: A Look at The Warlords (4:37, HD), which features some interview time with Peter Chan in English where he discusses his female lead and the anti-war message in the film, and an International Trailer (3:39, SD) -- which, disappointingly, only comes with an English dub voiceover.
The Warlords tosses HK powerhouses Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kineshiro together into a full-throttle historical epic, one that tells the story of three "blood" brothers who lead a group of starving bandits into becoming soldiers within the confines of 1860s Qing Dynasty. It's an expensive, ~$50 million production with all the tools at director Peter Chan's disposal, and it mostly succeeds at mustering strong performances from its central characters and a steady flow of clanking, blood-soaked battles. Those facets often overshadow the film's sluggish storytelling and scenes of overzealous drama, culminating into a weighty piece of action that's worth the time for its individual parts. Magnolia's Blu-ray, the one used for evaluation here, presents the film in its shorter International Cut, which, based on the material in the deleted scenes offered, seems to have blunted the visual look and the picture's overall drive. This disc is worth a Rental to see if the battles and the dramatic play between Li, Lau, and Kaneshiro appeal to you, while the MegaStar Blu-ray would be the one to import for an uncut, likely visually-correct version of The Warlords.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site