The relationship between the three ‘blood-brothers’ in “The Warlords” is a bromance of epic proportions. General Pang (Jet Li), Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and Er Hu (Andy Lau) travel together, share each other’s space, fight over women, and defend one another like characters in a typical Judd Apatow film. Their bromance is complicated, however, by the fact that they are three of the most powerful warlords in late-Qing dynasty China, and their brotherly spats result in starvation, massacre, and wholesale destruction of entire cities rather than knocked-up girls and marijuana misadventures.
“The Warlords” begins with a violent battle in which General Pang is the only survivor. In shock, he wanders around China and is restored to health by the lovely Lian Sheng (Xu Jinglei), after which he meets Er Hu and Wu Yang, two skilled leaders of a ragtag army that pillages and steals to survive. Impressed by each other’s fighting skills and ideals, the three men make a pact to become blood-brothers—it seems like the start of a beautiful friendship.
Almost as soon as the three generals make their pact though, the foundation of their brotherhood starts to crumble. General Pang and Lian Sheng fall in love and begin an affair, despite the fact that Lian Sheng is Er Hu’s wife. Pang’s ambition grows as he leads the brothers and their armies to victory after victory against rebels in the kingdom; but with increased ambition comes increased corruption. He is often in conflict with the purer morals of his brothers, and his determination to become a powerful government official turns “The Warlords” from a war-movie bromance into a devastating moral tragedy centered around the complete destruction of a friendship.
The movie is the most engaging when it explores the emotional complexities of the warlords’ relationship and the challenging decisions they must make. The epic battle scenes and elaborate fight choreography rival those of “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, but to some extent they serve as a distraction from the dynamics of the characters, who are amazingly acted by Li, Kaneshiro, and Lau. Every facial expression, gesture, and spoken line of the three men, particularly Li, is so firmly embedded in character that the presence of the actor is virtually invisible. They work together seamlessly as a team, and watching them act out the slow destruction of their characters’ relationship is as much a study in acting as it is an accomplishment on film.
Their acting chops are especially evident in the most memorable scene of the movie, in which the brothers have to decide whether to slaughter unarmed soldiers so that their own troops don’t have to starve or honor their promise to spare and feed the soldiers. Er Hu, moved by compassion, starts to feed the soldiers and plead for their lives, while General Pang, the ruthless and strategic general, has Er Hu locked up so that he cannot protest the massacre of the unarmed soldiers. Lau’s desperate clawing at his chains and guttural shouts as he is locked up express the agony of Er Hu remarkably well, and the look of stunned defeat on his face when he is finally released is painful to watch. Li plays the part of General Pangg in an incredibly nuanced way, betraying his character’s seemingly stoic face as he makes the decision to kill the men with desperately conflicted eyes and a single tear that slowly falls down his face.
The acting and battle choreography are not the only strong elements in the film. The costumes, sets, and cinematography perfectly capture the desperate conditions of wartime, the exhaustion and pain of the characters, and the aesthetic of mid-nineteenth century China. The film’s script is equally strong; despite the heaviness of the plot and the moral decisions the characters must make, there is still warmth, humor, and wit in their lines.
One of the few flaws in the movie is the character of Lian Sheng. Despite Lian’s important role in the story and the depth of emotion that her character should possess, Jinglei does not do much more with her character than stare forlornly into the distance with a flat expression. She does not inspire compassion or sympathy, and the chilling conclusion to her role in the film is difficult to watch because of the misguided intentions behind it, not because her character will be missed. As one of the only women featured in the movie, she is a disappointing and under-acted character.
The central focus of “The Warlords,” despite all of the action scenes and moral pontificating, is the exploration of relationships between men who love each other. With its epic scope and emotional sensibility, Chan has crafted an awe-inspiring tale of the human condition.