Win the battle, lose the thread
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 9, 2010
Dying is easy, according to the hero of "The Warlords." It's living that's hard.
The same assessment might be made about the movie. Set during the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century, the Chinese epic boasts lengthy, compulsively watchable battle scenes characterized by spurts of bright red blood and the clang of metal on metal, along with a narrative that is -- at least for Westerners unfamiliar with the bloody, years-long civil war in which tens of millions of people perished -- overly complicated.
The story centers on the campaign to suppress the rebellion by three imperial army commanders who -- in a pointless initiation ceremony involving the gang-like execution of three innocent men -- have sworn loyalty to one another. From the start, tensions exist between the main character, Gen. Pang (Jet Li), a hard-boiled career soldier, and his lieutenants Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu-Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), less-disciplined former bandits who have joined up mainly for the paycheck. Further unbalancing their blood brotherhood is the fact that Pang and Er-Hu are in love with the same woman (Xu Jinglei).
It doesn't simplify things that the corrupt brass back in Beijing is, at best, ambivalent about the trio's military success. For much of the film, the lords who make up the behind-the-scenes military and political leadership -- and who have a vested interest in perpetuating their own war profits -- refuse to send reinforcements and supplies to Pang and his troops.
This doesn't seem to affect our heroes' battlefield performance one whit.
Despite being vastly outnumbered, Pang's troops are stunningly, almost preposterously victorious over the rebels. Much of the film is taken up by fighting, choreographed with the visual appeal of a massively multi-player video game by director Peter Ho-Sun Chan, who has an affinity for severed limbs, impalement and the sound effect of steel slicing through raw meat. At one point, Pang is run through by an eight-foot spear, yet manages to remain on his feet. He's like the Energizer Bunny with a sword.
There's a visceral, albeit somewhat goofy, satisfaction to this stuff.
Not so when the battles die down. Pang, Er-Hu and Wu-Yang don't always see eye to eye on strategy, and their bickering gets worse -- not to mention harder to follow -- as the movie wears on. Toward the end, when Pang is about to be inaugurated as governor of the now-defeated rebel stronghold of Nanking, there's a confusing plot development involving multiple assassination attempts.
Li manifests his usual compelling screen presence, a mix of toughness and tenderness rendered in the all-too-convenient -- and all-too-frequent -- shorthand of a single tear rolling down his mud-caked cheek. It's meant to suggest his character's awareness that, in battle, terrible things must sometimes be done in the name of a greater good. War is hell, in other words.
Except that in "The Warlords," war is heaven. In fact, it makes everything else seem tedious by comparison.
Contains many violent battle sequences. In Mandarin with English subtitles.