General Pang Qing Yun (Jet Li) is the sole survivor of his entire battalion; the Ching army he commanded was decimated by the Taiping rebels in Hechuan. Seeking refuge, Pang retreats to a small town and ends up spending the night with a woman named Lian (Jinglei Xu). The next morning, he awakens alone, but is soon met by a bandit named Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Impressed with Pang’s fighting skills he introduces Pang to Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and together they take Pang to their village where Pang is reunited with Lian who, it turns out, is Er-Hu’s wife. When the imperial army invades and reclaims the food the bandits stole to feed the village, Pang, Er Hu, and Jiang take a blood oath to become brothers before joining Lord Chen’s army. And although the odds are against them, their 800 soldiers overtake Shu City and they soon put into motion plans to overthrow Suzhou and Nanjing, the capital. Yet, even before the “brothers” rise to the top can be cemented, they begin to unravel — Er-Hu is loyal to a fault with his word to his brothers, Pang will sacrifice anyone and even makes deals with his enemies to ensure victory, and Jiang finds himself stuck in the middle.
Even though there are many moving parts to The Warlords, it is phenomenally pieced together by directors Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip. The battle sequences are stunning, the cinematography is brilliant, and the acting is top notch — basically taking everything that was fantastic about Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Kahn and making it just a little bit better. To this end, Jet Li deserves a great deal of the accolades. After The Forbidden Kingdom and his rather stale performance in it, it’s become a bit difficult to know what to expect from him other than him displaying how talented he is at martial arts. Fortunately, he did a great job in this as he showed just about every emotion in this film at some time or another. Andy Lau also deserves a nod. His character is just so passionate about being honorable and loyal that when things go wrong, his reaction is just explosive. In one particular scene a play is mocking him and his brothers while he’s eating dinner; he begins to laugh, which leads to him crying uncontrollably, and then he begins laughing again. On paper it sounds silly, but Lau manages to pull it off flawlessly making it one of the more impressive scenes in the movie.
The battle scenes don’t pull any punches either. Blood flies across the screen as limbs roll along the ground — it’s truly fantastic to behold. They are a major highlight of The Warlords as the first half seems to not pull away from the battlefield. The film is also extremely colorful — every scene is stunningly vibrant. This richness mixed with innovative shots created many memorable scenes. There’s a scene where Er-Hu runs into a coliseum where there are just hundreds of dead bodies lying on the ground and the camera does a 360-degree motion around him capturing his emotions and the devastation that lies around him. It’s amazing.
The Warlords is one of the best Chinese war epics I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen too many of them, but even in comparison to films set in feudal Japan, it’s one of the best. If you are a fan of films like The Last Samurai, or Seven Samurai, then I highly recommended this. Even if those types of movies aren’t your cup of tea, this is the type of film that shouldn’t be missed by anyone.