In the year 1850, the suffering of the 430 million-strong Chinese nation was at its height under the corrupt rule of the Qing dynasty. During the chaos of a decade long civil war, 50 million people died from either hunger or battle. The unfamous tyranny set the stage for the Taiping Rebellion, led by some of the most incredible military strategists the world has ever known. From that chaos, three heroes would rise to unite armies and crush all who would seek to enslave them. But the cost of victory would shatter their brotherhood and unleash tragedy and bloodshed across the nation.
Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro cast in the same film... This pretty much set the standard and expectations that I had for The Warlords. All three are actors that I generally really like, as they've all been in some truly fantastic films. This is a Hong Kong film, so immediately with Jet in it I'm thankful that is the case. His Hollywood efforts have been entertaining, but not overly memorable. This is also a big budget film with a fairly epic scale to it, and again my hopes and expectations are increased. They wouldn't make a crap film when all these factors were taken into account, would they? Could they?
Thankfully, no, they have not made a crap film. However, they have not made the masterpiece on the epic scale that I was hoping for. The Warlords does have its fair share of great moments that make it a very wise purchase, but it also has too many moments of average and clichéd content to make it an essential purchase. This I found to be incredibly disappointing. With the cast involved, all efforts should have been made to make this a very special film. The producers and director should not have settled for a script or plot lines that were anything resembling clichéd, but as was seen in the extras with the film, the script for filming a scene was still being written the night and morning before the scene was due to be shot. Maybe that is perfectionism going to far, but often striving to make something better can remove the life and passion that went into it originally and you are left with something that is not as good as it should have been. I feel this is the case with elements of The Warlords; too much work and fine tuning was done.
Despite my disappointment with some aspects of the film there was still plenty to be happy with. The action for starters hits the mark very well. It is fast paced, violent, brutal and bloody. Limbs are severed, blood gushes and people are scared, adding to the realism of the war that is going on. The battle scene shown in the 2nd clip below this review is a particularly memorable one as Jet pretty much single-handedly massacres most of the opponent's forces. Yeah there is a lot of the people in the background just standing back from the fight, but moving around to make it look like it is busier and more frantic than it actually is, but it is still damn entertaining and just what we want to see! The clip is a section from the most epic of all the fights that take place in the film, but other action sequences do involve a little one on one combat and smaller, less epic battles. All are a visual treat and score highly for the action. However, the film does score too highly too soon with the action. With the adrenalin pumping battles that we see early on, the pace slows a little as the film moves on. Some later battles where the army overthrows a city aren't even shown at all, giving the film a very unbalanced feel action wise.
Despite all the action, The Warlords is not solely an action film. There are some heavy elements of drama in there as well. These primarily come about through the connection and brotherhood of the three leads. They have the charisma and leadership qualities to take what was little more than a rabble of thieves and turn them into a lethal army. With their bond they try to do better for their country and for their men. Now as is the way with power, corruption and/or differing ideals will form a wedge between people, and there is no difference in this case. It is this story that while a strong selling point of the film, balancing out the action to give The Warlords more depth, in my opinion also becomes the film's weakest link. Early on in the plot line there are too many knowingly deep stares at each other from the three leads, too many unspoken nods of understanding, and at other times too much screaming of joy or something. To me those sorts of moments were just the typical clichéd way of trying to show that characters have a strong bond. It wasn't believable and it just made me cringe.
The cringe worthy moments aside, there was ample quantity of decent acting on show to bring the film up a notch. I think most people have agreed that Jet's acting abilities have come on a long way, and as well as being a film martial artist he is also now a credible actor. In all areas he confirms this belief. My only criticism is that in the mid-latter parts of the film when he is dressed in his general's armour, it is such a ridiculous shape and bulk that it made him look like Maggie Simpson (the baby) from The Simpson's when she is dressed in her winter snow "star" shaped outfit. You know the one I mean - this one! For some reason it was a lot harder to take Jet seriously once that image was in my head! His acting isn't perfect, there are many times when he does just seem to grimace and stare, so maybe a bit more of a dynamic range would be better, but he is definitely improving.
With Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro there are two strong supporting leads. Having both worked on House Of The Flying Daggers together I imagine they both know each other quite well, and that relationship will have strengthened the relationship between their characters. As their loyalties become split and life changing decisions have to be made, the turmoil and confusion this causes is clear to see through the characters. They do well in portraying their emotions and pain.
Despite my excitement and anticipation prior to watching The Warlords, I did still enjoy the film, but I was left somewhat emptier than I had hoped. The clichéd moments severely damage the overall impact the film has and for me removed a lot of the "watch-again" appeal. It was entertaining, the story was good, but it lacks the extra va-va-voom to lift it into the 'great film' category.
Audio & Subtitles
This release comes with a choice of Mandarin audio in either DTS5.1, DD5.1 or stereo formats. I watched with DTS audio. It sounded pretty good to me. The subwoofer was giving off ample bass during explosions, the action spread all around the soundstage and there were plenty of discrete effects used from the surround speakers throughout the film. Vocals were clear and crisp, and all in I had no complaints.
The subtitles in the main film were very good. I didn't notice any spelling or grammar errors. However, in the extra features one of the featurettes has a lot of Chinese text on screen a points throughout its duration and this text is not subtitled. I believe some of it is key to getting a full understanding of what is going on in the featurette, so it is very disappointing that there are not translations of it.
I watched the DVD of 28 Days Later recently, not long after watching The Warlords and it made me appreciate just how good some of the transfers in the films Metrodome have released recently have been. 28 Days Later looked bloody awful. By comparison this was bright, sharp, full of detail, minimal blur or smearing of the colours and very clear. It wasn't grainy looking and I thought it looked very good. Then after seeing 28 Days Later I changed my mind and thought it looked excellent. I am more than happy with the transfer.
DVD & Extras
This is a 2 DVD release of The Warlords, with the film on disc 1 and the extras on disc 2. The extras are "117 Days: A Production Journal" (35 mins), "Reflections On 'The Warlords'" (38 mins), deleted scenes (27 mins), "The History Behind The Warlords" and the usual trailer for the film. The deleted scenes are not all deleted scenes, some are more extended scenes. They don't add a great deal to the film, but are nice to see. The History Behind The Warlords is pages of text detailing the true story of the people that this film was based on. The two featurettes are the extras' main pulling power. "117 Days" is essentially a "Making Of" featurette, with this one not pulling many punches. Within a few minutes of it starting we see people getting angry, and the director openly criticising his production crew, calling them "a joke". At least from then on you know it won't hide anything! It is an interesting view of how the film was made, the delays to the schedule that happened almost immediately, the conditions the cast and crew had to endure to film all the scenes. The making of elements are interspersed with snippets of interview and commentary from various cast and crew members. Now the worst thing about this featurette is, as already mentioned above, the Chinese text on screen is not translated. This really is a school-boy error. "Reflections..." is a series of short mini-making-of pieces. There is some repetition with 117 Days in there. It caters more for the people with shorter attention spans by breaking the production up into many different areas and aspects. Again, it is interesting and a nice thing to watch to appreciate the scale of the film.
I so wanted to absolutely love The Warlords - I loved the cast, the style of film gave it epic potential, the story gave it an abundance of possibilities for action, the mantle for "best epic action film ever" was there for the taking. Alas the film has fallen a little short. There are lots of good aspects to the film, a few great ones too, but there is also too much on the negative side to give it such a high accolade. Instead The Warlords stands as a good but not great, epic action film, that helps showcase that Hong Kong cinema still has a lot of potential and Jet Li is still improving as an actor.