Though technically predating Red Cliff, The Warlords‘s stateside arrival one year after John Woo’s Chinese period epic invariably results in unfavorable comparisons. Peter Chan’s military saga (loosely based on real life, as well as the Shaw brothers’ 1973 The Blood Brothers) recounts the mid-19th-century tale of General Pang (Jet Li) and his decision, after being the lone survivor of a brutal campaign defeat, to join up with a bandit brigade led by Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and his second-in-command Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) that steals from the corrupt Qing dynasty’s army. Becoming blood brothers with Er-Hu and Jiang via a ritual in which they murder three captured adversaries, Pang convinces his mates to join the military both to avoid starvation and to help him exact revenge against a traitorous army commander, a strategic decision that—set against the backdrop of the Qing dynasty’s 14-year-long civil war against Taiping rebel forces—soon tests their sworn loyalty to each other.
In matching shots of Pang and Er-Hu standing amid a corpse-strewn field, the camera pulling back to reveal the magnitude of human loss, director Chan strikingly conveys not only the enormity of wartime casualties but also the insignificance of life in times of conflict. The Warlords seeks to expound upon these ideas via Pang’s increasing use of ruthless military tactics that Er-Hu opposes, culminating in a savage slaughter through which Pang and Jiang argue that honor has no place on the battlefield. Yet as with the three comrades’ shifting dynamics, complicated by Pang’s furtive romance with Er-Hu’s wife Lian (Xu Jing-Lei), the story’s underlying concerns are too thinly developed to elevate the material to its desired larger-than-life scale.
Whereas Chan’s narrative (scripted by a whopping eight writers) settles into a standard rise-and-fall arc, his fight sequences exhibit a punchy vigor. Mired in dirt and blood, his centerpieces avoid the type of florid flourishes that mark Woo’s latest, though their less-flashy style also prevents them from achieving operatic heights. Ultimately, the same can be said about the entire film, a respectable if generally unmemorable entry in the already crowded military period epic subgenre, typified by a central performance by Li that, as with those from Lau and Kaneshiro, is passably intense but too monotonous to deliver more than a mild hack-and-slash high.