Distributed By: Magnet
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Every once in a while, I love a good foreign film. I enjoy films based on events in history, especially history of the East, of which very little is taught in school. The Warlords is based on the assassination of historical figure Ma Xinyi, who, in the late 1800s, fought against the Taiping Rebellion to restore the Qing Dynasty. Having read the synopsis and noted that Jet Li starred in the film, I couldn't resist checking it out.
The movie, narrated by Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), begins with a ferocious battle in which General Pang Qingyun's (Jet Li) entire army is wiped out. Abandoned by the Ho Army, General Pang's men are left to die at the hands of the Taiping Army. He is the lone survivor. Beaten in body, heart and soul, Pang is healed by a young stranger named Lian (Jinglei Xu). The two share a night of confessions and romance before she disappears.
Pang eventually comes into contact with a troop of bandits and discovers that Lian lives among them. He befriends Zhang Wen-Xiang, who admires his fighting skill and bravery. Bringing Pang to the leader of the bandits, his brother Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau), Zhang Wen-Xiang believes that Pang will be an asset to their group. Er-Hu disagrees, citing that Pang is a soldier and could never live among a group of bandits. Meanwhile, Pang discovers that Lian is actually living amongst the bandits, the lover of Er-Hu and the reason he had to become a bandit in the first place.
As he prepares to leave, Pang witnesses an attack on the bandits by the Qing Army from whom they have stolen provisions. Left in disarray, injured and without food, the bandits are in a state of despair until Pang comes up with an idea. If the bandits join the Qing Army, they will be paid regular wages and can protect and feed their families. Though skeptical, the join Pang on their first mission - to attack a convoy of Taiping Rebels. The three leaders, Pang Qingyun, Zhang Wen-Xiang and Zhao Er-Hu become blood brothers, sworn to defend each other through whatever they face.
Success puts them in a decent light with the Qing Dynasty and elevates the three blood brothers to General status. Their army is used to cut a swath against the territories taken by the Taiping Rebels. But Pang's practices while fighting this war begin to differ with that of Er-Hu, causing a rift in the brotherhood with Zhang Wen-Xiang caught in the middle. Can a brotherhood forged in blood survive the horrific trials of a war fought with passionate differences of opinion amongst the army's leadership?
There is an important lesson to be learned in this film. It is driven home in the conversation between Pang and Lian. When asked why Lian ran away from the bandits and Er-Hu, she tells Pang that she has run away often, in search of something better than the life she is living. However, she always returns. In other words, she runs in hopes of a better life, but in the end, is always left disappointed, because what looks better from the outside is always tarnished from within.
The same can be said about Pang and his intentions. When he started the war, Pang had the idea that all men should be free to live their lives in happiness without worry for violence or poverty. However, by the end of the war, we begin to note a change in Pang's philosophies. He begins to waver on certain truths he once held so firmly to. Unarmed men from opposing armies are still seen as soldiers in his eyes, thus, different from the civilian peasants and expendable. Once so strong in conviction, Pang begins to take a lower standing in our eyes as he begins to change with power.
Running from the harshness of the Qing Dynasty, power has changed what Pang once believed in so firmly, and thus, hopes for a better life under this new leader are yet again dashed. Power can tarnish the most valiant of souls, a lesson that comes harshly to the true hero of this film, Zhang Wen-Xiang, who once worshipped Pang and believed in everything he stood for.
The Warlords is more a dramatic film than the action film it is billed as. Sure, there are some ferocious battles fought in the film, but the main story is what goes on behind the scenes of the battle - the love triangle of Pang, Lian and Er-Hu, the differences in philosophies, the loss of a good man's conscience to the horrors of war. It is the emotional battle of the people fighting the war that is the crux of the film.
I always believed that Jet Li was an excellent actor, but the movies he has done in America, performed in decent but still broken English, take away from his power as an actor. People focused more on his action skills than his dramatic performances. It is in The Warlords, a movie performed entirely in Mandarin, where we can truly see Li's acting prowess. Here, he is less focused on getting the lines right in English and he can focus more on the emotions behind what he is saying. I have never seen such a brilliant performance by Li until this movie. Kudos also go to Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro for equally heartrending dramatic performances.
The Warlords was much more than I had ever expected. I thought I was about to watch an action movie based on history. What I got instead was a dramatic film full of emotional ups and downs that made us care about the characters and their outcome, forgetting that it is based on historical events. The Warlords is an excellent dramatic film and I am tremendously happy I decided to take a chance on it.