Thursday, December 27, 2007

THE WARLORDS: An Asian '300'

THE WARLORDS (historical drama)

Cast: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Xu Jing-lei
Director: Peter Chan
Time: 125 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

(pic: The blood brothers taking their oath)
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? Arguably, “The Warlords” is what acclaimed director Zhang Yimou must have tried to do with his 2002 “Hero” – and failed. Director Peter Chan has apparently learnt from Zhang’s mistakes and concentrated on the storyline, grounding his film on realistic warfare instead of fanciful stunts and ‘wire-fu’ gimmicks. “The Warlords” may not have the box-office lure for Westerners but it should give blockbusters like “300” a run for the money, especially with Asian crowds..

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie, adapted from a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tale about the Assassination of Ma Xinyi, deals with three ‘blood brothers’ during the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s. When the movie opens, we see General Pang (Jet Li as the legendary General Ma) emerging from a pile of corpses in the battlefield. Pang has played dead while his army is massacred after being betrayed by the Kiu forces. He is rescued by a runaway courtesan Lian (Wu Jing-lei), and he joins a band of bandits led by Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

When the village is attacked by soldiers, Pang suggests to Er Hu and Wu Yang that they join the Qing army and fight for a cause instead. The three then take an oath to become ‘blood brothers’, pledging loyalty to one another to the death. Inevitably, this pact is threatened when Pang gets embroiled in a web of political deceit orchestrated by the Empress’ advisors. And to make things worse, Pang is also involved in a love triangle with Lian who happens to be Er Hu’s lover.

HITS & MISSES: Director Chan colours all his shots with an earthy sepia hue, giving the movie its gritty 19th Century ambience and mood. The fighting scenes are brutally realistic, with blood and limbs flying all over the place. Like Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”, the carnage and bloodlust are a sight to behold and some may even shock viewers. For example, the scene of Jet Li’s duel with a spear embedded in his shoulder will be etched in our minds for a long time.

A hefty portion of the movie’s US$40 million budget was reportedly paid as Jet Li’s salary. Whether this is justified is open to debate but there is no doubt that he is the main attraction here, headlining the action with able co-stars Lau and Kaneshiro. Director Chan does not provide much dialogue for his cast, he just focuses the camera on their faces and their reactions. With this technique, we get to see more ‘acting’ from Li and Kaneshiro. Indeed, we would never see Kaneshiro shedding more tears anywhere else than in this movie. Andy Lau acquits himself well as the roguish bandit who can’t see eye to eye with General Pang. However, the most touching performance comes from Wu Jing-lei as the centre of the love triangle. Wu is no beauty but she makes us feel for her whenever she appears.

Still, “The Warlords” is not what we can call a ‘well-balanced’ helming by Chan. He has emphasised too much on the battle scenes and left a lot of character interactions undeveloped or underdeveloped. Pang’s character remains an enigma and much of the love tangle between Er Hu and Pang is left to our imagination.

THE LOWDOWN: “The Warlords”, however, may be considered Hong Kong’s answer to “300” as it deals with how a ragtag bunch of 180 warriors go against 5,000 trained soldiers. It is as much a seat-gripper as that Spartan movie.


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