Blu-Ray Review: ‘The Warlords’ Triumphantly Depicts War as Hell

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CHICAGO – In the opening moments of Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s “The Warlords,” martial arts superstar Jet Li performs one of his bravest physical feats yet. He breaks into tears. This comes as a bit of a shock, considering Li’s status as one of China’s most formidable onscreen ass-kickers. Yet it’s in keeping with Chan’s uncommonly emotional approach to depicting historical events often drained of humanity.

“Warlords” debuted in China one year before the release of John Woo’s overblown epic “Red Cliff.” Both films purport themselves to be antiwar pictures, yet in the case of Woo’s epic, the expensive spectacle is romanticized to such a degree that it fails to impact the audience on a visceral level. When arrows are shot through the sky, Woo follows the arrows from their point of view, evoking the tone of a video game rather than actual warfare. There’s a similar shot in “Warlords” that follows the path of airborne arrows, yet keeps the camera fixed on the ground, viewing the approaching doom from the soldiers’ perspective. This simpler, more intimate approach proves to be far more effective. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

Perhaps it is Chan’s background in character-based dramas such as “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” that has assisted him in anchoring a massive project like “Warlords” in an emotional reality that prevents the material from spiraling into excess. The film is based on mythological speculation surrounding the assassination of General Ma Xinyi in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion, circa 1870. This story was previously explored in the 1973 Shaw Bros. classic “Blood Brothers,” though Chan’s film is clearly uninterested in flashy choreography. His chief goal is to portray the chaos of war, which cinematographer Arthur Wong captures in all of its grit and frenzy. There are even moments when the audience is allowed to share in the delirious confusion of the battle sequences, such as when soldiers on horseback wrap “blinders” around their horses’ eyes, to prevent them from being frightened by the surrounding carnage (if I were a horse, I’d be more freaked by the “blinder”). When death scenes arrive, they come as a sucker punch, and truly convey a sense of loss rather than mere inevitability.

Jet Li stars in Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s The Warlords.
Jet Li stars in Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s The Warlords.
Photo credit: Magnolia Home Entertainment

Li stars as General Pang (standing in for Ma Xinyi), the sole survivor of a battle against the Taiping Rebellion, which took the lives of his outnumbered army. He teams up with bandits Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (“Red Cliff”’s Takeshi Kaneshiro), who together forge a blood covenant that will assist them in their fight for the Qing Dynasty. Chan delves into the psyche of men who justify their violent actions by their belief that it will lead to an idealized future. Pang’s evolution from an impassioned revolutionary to a hardened killer is exquisitely portrayed by Li, though Lau manages to steal the picture as the sole character who hangs onto his convictions all the way to the bloody end. Kaneshiro is often caught in the middle, though he has a memorable moment toward the end where he discovers that killing has become his twisted solution to every problem. Though the film is somewhat marred by clunky dialogue and an intrusive score, it is far more effective than the majority of war epics, largely because its message is a sincere one.

The Warlords was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 29th, 2010.
The Warlords was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 29th, 2010.
Photo credit: Magnolia Home Entertainment

“The Warlords” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and accompanied by English and Mandarin audio tracks. The disc’s behind the scenes content is offered in a variety of formats, yet the best way to view it is in the 35-minute production journal, which depicts the various production challenges with a refreshing lack of glibness that’s worthy of the film itself. Traffic jams, car crashes, creative disputes and freezing extras complaining of neglect are just a few of the elements that increased onset tensions during the film’s 117-day shoot. Li admits his nervousness about working with a director unskilled at action scenes, and it’s clear that Chan got a strong assist from “collaborating director” Raymond Yip and choreographer Siu-Tung Ching. Though the film’s use of trenches during a key battle scene weren’t historically accurate in the context of the Qing Dynasty, Chan says that they were inspired by his love of the antiwar classic, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Chan says that he wanted his film to emphasize that there are no good guys or bad guys, but merely different perspectives. The director also makes clear that he had no intention of making “Warlords” a Wuxia picture, and compares his film’s theme of never-ending violence to the current war in Afghanistan.

The BD-Live-enabled disc also includes 27 minutes of deleted footage, most of which are extended scenes that bring the characters some much-needed breathing room. A few sequences capture the long periods of waiting that the soldiers had to endure, and the starvation that only increased their brutality. There’s also an alternate ending that reveals the gory fate of Wu Yang, and includes an odd extended close-up of Kaneshiro’s face emoting in slow motion. Viewers who favor soundbite vignettes over in-depth analysis will appreciate the disc’s inclusion of fifteen mini-featurettes that highlight various elements of the production. Rounding out the extras is an international trailer, a 17-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, and a brief HDNet interview with an English-speaking Chan.

‘The Warlords’ is released by Magnolia Home Entertainment and stars Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jinglei Xu. It was written by Tin Nam Chun, Junli Guo, Jiping He, Jianxin Huang, Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Lan Xu and James Yuen and directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. It was released on June 29th, 2010. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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