2007, Hong Kong/China
Directed by Peter Chan
Written by Xu Lan, Chun Tin-Nam, Aubery Lam, Huang Jian Xin, Jojo Hui, He Jiping, Guo Jun Li, James Yuen
Starring Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei
127 minutes, English
Generally speaking, when an action star attempts a role that requires delivering dialogue rather than grunting while kicking an ethnic terrorist in the throat, there’s an inevitable backlash of Cop Land references. But in The Warlords, martial arts star Jet Li demonstrates that he’s capable of more range than one might expect.
Of course, that doesn’t make The Warlords a particularly good film, unless you’ve got an Asian fetish or you spilled Faygo on your Braveheart DVD. The film falls firmly into the category of the average historical drama, geared slightly more towards military history students than women who like the costumes in Marie Antoinette. Li plays Pang, a general in 1800s China whose men are slaughtered on the battlefield. He rebuilds his army using a local bandits led by Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Zhao, played by action star Andy Lau, and launches a campaign against a rebel uprising.
The Warlords benefits from superb period costumes and set design, and solid performances by all three leads. As well, two astonishing action sequences are guaranteed to impress even the most jaded action fan. But since the rest of the film is comprised of the admittedly interesting interplay between Pang, Zhao, and Jiang, its structure feels a touch disjointed and schizophrenic, sort of like Dana White giving a soliloquy during an episode of Ultimate Fighter. Li’s cold, ultimately amoral Pang is certainly the most effective performance he’s yet given, and contrasts nicely with Lau’s fiery, somewhat unstable Zhao. But ultimately, if Li hopes to move beyond action films, he’d do well to find a project with both feet firmly planted in dramatic territory.