Jet Li still is fearless, still a hero, but he's showing new and richer acting moves in "The Warlords," his latest Chinese historical epic that teams him to good effect with fellow Asian superstars Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro.
In "Fearless" and especially "Hero," Li already had proven he's more than just an action master, and "The Warlords" gives him the chance to play both sides of the fence — not only the unadulterated idol, but also the hero after he's been corrupted by ambition, envy and more than a trace of megalomania.
The U.S. release of "The Warlords" is choppy from some inelegant editing to trim the film from its two-hour-plus running time for Asian markets, and director Peter Chan handles epic battles and mass slaughter far more artfully than quiet human drama.
Between its often spectacular action sequences, "The Warlords" lapses into some prolonged and hokey rants about brotherhood, duty, expediency and honor. While Li, Lau and Kaneshiro bring warmth, humor and pathos to their roles as blood brothers bound for tragedy, they're better to watch in action or when quietly brooding than when pontificating on what they owe to one another and the warriors they lead.
Action on a colossal scale
Their bond deepens in encounters with armed oppressors, the three men swearing a fraternal oath that runs deeper than blood. (They pledge their loyalty with an act of barbarity that acclimates viewers to startling brutality to come; "The Warlords" adheres without compromise to a crusader code that's not for the squeamish.)
Pang inspires Er Hu and Wu Yang to join the Qing Dynasty forces battling Taiping soldiers. Years of savage combat, terrible privation and underdog glory follow, the three heroes' bond strengthened by the enemy blood they shed but also strained by the clash of Pang's mercilessness and Er Hu's compassion, with Wu Yang torn between.
Chan orchestrates the action on a colossal scale, and it's real in-the-trenches stuff — nasty, ruthless, cruel — a bloodthirsty counterpoint to the ballet of warfare in Li's "Hero" or Kaneshiro and Lau's "House of Flying Daggers," both from director Zhang Yimou.
As the trials and differences of our three main men swell to overly operatic proportions, the toll of war on the masses escalates, as well.
Chan opens the film with an impressive "Gone With the Wind" shot of a battlefield stacked with corpses. He tops himself late in the film with an even ghastlier aftermath of extermination, a scene to sap the fighting spirit of the fiercest soldier.
Though reveling in battle from a cinematic perspective, "The Warlords" really is an anti-war film.