Jet Li takes command in soapy epic ‘Warlords’
‘The Warlords’’ is an old Chinese war epic but with a difference. The war is merely old as opposed to ancient (it’s the 1860s!), and Jet Li is really good. This happens to be one of those overstaffed, overcostumed, overwrought dynastic affairs (it’s the Qing) that takes forever to reach its slow-motion conclusion. The whole thing culminates in a still-unsolved execution that, under these circumstances, makes only a whiff of sense. It’s all lavish, if disposable. But in a nifty change of pace, the warriors in “The Warlords’’ are interesting.
Li plays Qingyun an adrenaline-junkie army general whose psychotic adherence to strategic pragmatism impresses the Empress Dowager. After he loses all of his men in battle (“We fought the Taiping rebels for three nights and three days,’’ he exclaims through tears), Qingyun falls in with an impoverished marauder army led by Erhu (Andy Lau) and Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
The three take a blood oath, join the Qing army (for the benefits package), and find themselves repeatedly underfunded for battle. Their bond is tested, and conflicts arise, many of them refreshingly moral and philosophical. Qingyun is heartless. Erhu is not as heartless as he seems. And poor Wuyang falls into the chasm that opens between the other two.
Yes, “The Warlords’’ is a military soap opera. But it’s a regular soap opera, too. For instance, the woman (Xu Jinglei) who nurses and cuddles Qingyun back to fighting form happens to be Erhu’s wife. Cue the longing glances and furtive night chases. But the most convincing intimacy occurs between one warrior and the freshly stabbed corpse atop him. The director, Peter Chan, practices a casual violence. Steel traps, projectile netting, an ax to the chest. Off with a leg. Look out for that cannon. If things seem bad for the combat extras, they appear worse for the horses.
It took eight credited screenwriters to pull this movie together. That any characters emerge at all is a triumph. Qingyun is something of a contradiction — a hugger and a fighter. But it’s nice to see Li going for a performance again. The character is a little nuts but hard to resist. Even after ordering the execution of 4,000 starving enemy troops, he manages to convince an appalled Erhu not to defect. Lau is the better actor, but that doesn’t stop Li from trying to top him in every scene. “Shut up! There’s only one commander on the battlefield!’’ read Li’s subtitles. That seems to apply to his acting as well.