Cast of non-CGI thousands: Jet Li and director Peter Ho-Sun Chan on the set of The Warlords.

Epic Expectations in 'The Warlords'

Dennis Harvey April 7, 2010

When television first became a dire threat to commercial cinema–replacing the latter as America’s #1 entertainment choice almost overnight–Hollywood fought the small screen by making the big one as big as possible. Reel life got much, much larger than life via umpteen widescreen processes (CinemaScope, Cinerama, et al.), additional gimmicks (notably the first 3-D craze), plus Stereophonic sound, Technicolor (hitherto used only for prestige productions) and so on. The idea was to give you more of everything that tiny, B&W “idiot box” couldn’t: Vast spectacles worth leaving home and spending cash money for.

As a result certain genres flourished as they hadn’t before, simply because they naturally lent themselves to elephantine presentation. Primary among them was the historical (and/or Biblical) action epic, which provided ample opportunity to flood the wide screen with lavish sets and costumes, battle scenes, and the frequently advertised “cast of thousands.”

These movies have made a comeback lately (complete with 3-D), albeit in forms that 1950s Hollywood might have found quite alien. For one thing, Biblical stories are mostly out, replaced by other mythologies from the Greco-Roman (like this week’s Clash of the Titans remake) to the Tolkienesque. And for another, those “casts of thousands” –as well as sometimes the sets, costumes, backdrops and spectacular action–are now largely computer-generated.

This is fine as far as it goes. Certainly the new technologies have allowed certain stories (like Lord of the Rings, obviously) to be fully visualized in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before. But particularly when the tale being told is less fantastical than factual (or at least vaguely historical), there remains something to be said for the old-school methods. Is the enormous, minutely detailed but almost entirely computer-generated spectacle of, say, 300, more thrilling than the vividly real human action of Matt Damon’s Bourne fighting a deadly foe in a hotel room, or the mind-boggling parkour stunts of the District 13 movies? Not in my book–seeing actual people do amazing stuff is always more exciting than watching digital graphics that allow characters to do the physically impossible.

This is a long way of getting to the point that a sizeable minority of fans prefer, when it comes to action spectacle, certain types of foreign films to Hollywood’s much more generously funded models. Why? Because there are certain things money can’t buy–and while they can do a lot, green-screen FX can’t really duplicate the thrill of tangibly flesh-and-blood stunt work, or a real “cast of thousands.”

That last is the main pleasure to be had in viewing China Hong Kong co-production The Warlords, an unabashedly old-fashioned (if somewhat amped-up) war epic that’s finally reaching our shores over two years after opening theatrically in Asia, with big-screen and DVD release ensuing nearly everywhere else in the meantime. That’s even longer than it took John Woo’s not-dissimilar Red Cliff to get here, although mercifully Warlords arrives with less collateral damage: Only 16 minutes were cut for its “international version,” whereas the originally two-part Woo epic got virtually cut in half, “condensed” from a 280-minute diptych to one feature just under two and one-half hours.

Just how big is The Warlords? Well, it cost an estimated $40 million, half Red Cliff’s budget but still (to take a wild guess) probably the equivalent of at least $120 mil in Hollywood production value. (With these movies the money is, as the saying goes, all on screen–and I don’t mean green-screen.) It’s got three enormous headliners in mainstream Chinese-and-international superstar Jet Li, Hong Kong’s Andy Lau and Taiwanese-Japanese Takeshi Kaneshiro (who co-starred with Tony Leung in Red Cliff). It took the combined efforts of eight credited screenwriters–and three composers!

All this combined manpower results, perhaps unsurprisingly, in something as noisy, impressive and entertaining as it is at core familiar and uncomplicated. Set during the Taipei Rebellion of the 1860s, it begins with General Pang (Li) vowing vengeance against a duplicitous alleged ally who’d let his troops stand idly by while Pang’s were massacred. Barely alive, Pang is tended by a mysterious woman (Xu Jinglei) who turns out to be Lian, the wife of Er-hu (Lau), bandit gang leader whose home village lies nearby. Pang persuades the villagers that their precarious existence could be bettered by actually joining government Army forces in its fight against the rebels–they’ll be paid and can divide the spoils from conquering rebel-held cities.

He, Er-hu and gung-ho younger Jiang (Kaneshiro) make a pact as blood brothers of unbreakable loyalty. What the reformed bandits don’t grasp is that Pang has other, even more pressing loyalties–to merciless military ethics, but most of all to his blood oath against foe General Ho–and that he will crush anyone or anything that conflicts with them.

Thus The Warlords is essentially a Round Table-like tale of brotherly love between warriors undone by factors including the woman whose conjugal love becomes another thing to fight over. (Once Lian and Pang lock eyes we know her marriage to Er-hu is in deep trouble.) Once established, these basic conflicts don’t get elaborated so much as merely reiterated, in large part because the film is too busy staging large action setpieces to spare much time for character development or psychological dynamics. It’s only in The Warlords’ last half-hour or so that the human dimension really takes center-stage, as Pang’s ruthlessness, Er-hu’s heartbreak, Jiang’s disillusionment and Lian’s slippery slope finally trigger a series of one-on-one tragedies more powerful than all the expansive scenes of blood-soaked combat combined.

The stars, naturally, have charisma enough to keep their relatively one-note roles compelling. Director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (of such HK hits as He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, Comrades: Almost a Love Story, etc.) favors a gritty, earth-toned, desaturated look that’s a far cry from the kind of ravishing aesthetic overload Zhang Yimou bestowed on the likes of Hero. Nor does The Warlords trade in the wire-flying fantasticism or even the martial-arts wizardry (with a brief late exception) of so many similar period actioners. Instead, it emphasizes Braveheart-style battle brutality by sword, spear and sometimes gunpowder. (More modern weaponry hadn’t yet fully overtaken the old kinds in China at this point.)

Like the truncated U.S. Red Cliff –not to mention 300 or even The Hurt LockerThe Warlords pays a certain price for its near-incessant, admittedly impressive focus on visceral action. The equally intense emotions we’re supposed to experience are more signalled than felt, no matter how often the stars twist their famous mugs into expressions of agonized conflict. (As their blood-brothership is gradually torn asunder, this war movie becomes soaked in possibly the largest quantity of onscreen man-tears ever.) Still, if you prefer your costume war epics big, bloody, brawny and populated by a real cast of non-CGI thousands (or at least hundreds), The Warlords won’t disappoint.