Two's a company and three's a crowd. In movieland, that is almost always true, with no black and white, but with shades of grey instead. Of late, period or martial chivalry movies either look aesthetically beautiful like Zhang Yimou's trilogy of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, or opt for the grittier, more down to earth look with plenty of dirt and grime like Battle of Wits. Director Peter Chan's The Warlords follows the latter with its strained colors and muck on everyone's face, in parallel of the grey that befalls everyone in this tale of a trio's struggles with the System, and amongst themselves.
Those who are familiar with stories featuring similar themes like brotherly bonds, blood brothers and the likes, will find that The Warlords, when striped away to its core, conforms to the same. But what Peter Chan did, and I thought succeeded, was to fuse really hard core battle action sequences with character driven drama, and having the stellar leads of Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro play something quite unlike their usual onscreen personae, well, except maybe Kaneshiro. Publicity talk has been rife of Jet Li's unbelievable pay package taking up almost 40% of the production cost, but if that was true, I'd guess it must've been a reward to take on something risky (to a screen idol that is), and as it turned out, it could instead be a career defining role for Li, who doesn't get as much opportunity to show off those slick martial arts moves, no doubt in part wanting to stick the movie as close to reality as possible (bye, shawdowless kick!)
Li opens the movie as a disgraced General Pang, who was betrayed and only survived a massacre of his troops by the cowardly act of playing dead (Yes! Jet Li, playing a coward, pretending to be dead! Told you!) In his quest to survive incognito, he chances upon a bandit Zhang Wu-Yang, played by Kaneshiro, who acknowledges General Ma's fighting prowess, and recruits him to the gang of Lau's Zhao Er-Hu. However, the bandit life is not for a man of war, who sees the poor bandit village getting their arses kicked when soldiers of a rival court raid them, and thus finds the catalyst to encourage the bandit men to draw salary and food, by joining the army. Suspicious and needing assurance of the General, the trio of Pang, Zhang and Zhao sign a blood oath, and thus the blood brothers are born - one a charismatic leader, one a general looking to reclaim his honour, and one in every bonding, the earnest and faithful follower.
As the story unfolds, you begin to see how de-facto leaders always feel threatened by young upstarts, both in the politics within the small band of brothers, and in the bigger picture with the court officials. With individuals, there's almost always a clash of ideals, with many methods available in achieving common objectives, and one man's insatiable ambition will put the others at risk in Machiavellian terms. Finding themselves stronger in unity, repeated success on the battlefield start to change folks and reveal true intentions. Even the rule of law established becomes subject to interpretation based on the moment's convenience, and core principles like honour and gentlemen's agreement get tossed out of the window. As innermost desires are revealed, you'll begin to see how seriously or not, the blood oath is being treated by each individual, especially when one finds the other being externally threatened, or betrayal of temptation in the highest order courtesy of female lead Xu Jinglei's Lian as the token flower amongst the thorns.
However, the story bore strength in its presentation of key moments where you'll be called upon to question and even judge the characters, their decisions, and at times, forced to choose sides. You may be convinced by one argument, yet understand the necessity of why something else was done instead. And I'd think you'll probably won't stick to one side for the most parts, and such bringing out the shades of grey that you'll experience for yourself, if you happen to be in the shoes of the trio's foot soldiers. Naivety is truly unkind, and sometimes one is just a pawn in situations far beyond one's grasp, and you can see how this rings true for almost every character here.
While it is easy to dwell on the battle sequences and make this one heck of an action romp in the veins of 300 (ok, so this one had its "108 heroes" moment in a nod towards probable upcoming Water Margin movies), which it did look to suspiciously tread along the same vein, I thought the filmmakers here were smart to know when to show gore, with the decapitations, piercings and the likes, to knowing when to retract such in your face moments for maximum effect. In the hands of a lesser director, perhaps a key brutal scene will mean to show the obvious full frontal, but in showing you something else instead, with focus on individual reactions and the reactions of compatriots at one point in time, I thought it achieved a more powerful effect, with the audience I'm with tonight completed dumbfounded and silent throughout the scene.
A remake of sorts of Shaw Brothers' Ci Ma some 35 years ago (directed by Chang Cheh and starring David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai in the lead roles), Peter Chan has brought to us a worthy Chinese epic movie with lavish production values, and one deserving of being called a magnificent effort. And yes, this deserves a watch in seeing who's actually playing who, and with a stellar cast to boot, I don't see why not. Highly recommended!