Warlords, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/22/09 02:37:38

"One of Jet Li's best performances - as an actor."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At certain points, the fact that "Warlords" kicked around for a while without a U.S. distributor despite being an epic with high production values and a star in Jet Li who is still relatively bankable was taken as the final sign that any remaining interesting in Asian cinema on this side of the Pacific had dried up. There's likely a depressing amount of truth to that, but it may also be because Jet Li does still sell as an action star, and studios may not want to counter that image with such an ambiguous role.

Li plays Pang Qing-yan, and as we open the film he is crawling out from under the corpses of his men, the only survivor of a battle against rebel forces in which his supposed ally, General Ho, abandoned rather than assisted them. He briefly abandons the army, sharing a single night with Lian (Xu Jing-lei), although he soon encounters her again in a bandit village - along with her husband, village chief Zhao Er-hu (Andy Lau), and his second in command, Jiang Wa-zhoa (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Upon finding out how poor they are, he suggests the army as offering regular pay and support for their families. It sounds like a good deal - until they find out that General Pang is as ruthless as any bandit.

Last week, I opened a review by mentioning that Jet Li wasn't getting any younger, and that's never been more true - nor used to better effect - than in this film. It's no so much that he's slowing down; he's still a force of nature on the battlefield. He looks middle-aged, though - Pang has graying, thinning hair, and we see wrinkles in his face other than laugh lines when the filmmakers go in for a close-up. There's a bit of a rasp to his voice, too, the sort that indicates that the authority there hasn't just come from confidence or skills, but more experience than any man need accumulate in real or metaphorical battlegrounds. Jet Li may not be as young as he once was, but he's not this old, either; he's giving one of his best performances as an actor, as opposed to just as a martial artist.

Beyond just giving Li a chance to stretch his acting wings, Pang is part of an interesting group of roles in that all of the main characters see their ethics shift over the course of the film. It's most obvious in two scenes spaced not that far apart - one involving Pang ordering two of Zhao's men executed for rape, and another where he weighs how to handle thousands of prisoners with limited supplies and ambitious plans. Indeed, though the term "war criminal" likely hadn't been coined at the time of this film's events, it's as good a description as any for the direction Pang heads. Though early scenes would suggest that Pang is the hero and Zhao the potential villain, the actual direction is close to the opposite, although none of them are quite that simple: Li does convey that Pang truly believes he is doing what is necessary in the long run, Lau shows that Zhoa's burgeoning ideals may not be compatible with being a good soldier, and Kaneshiro makes Jiang all kinds of conflicted between the two.

This is set against a backdrop that is quite amazing as spectacle. It's becoming redundant to compare war movies to Saving Private Ryan, but that film has become the template for how war looks on screen now, covered in mud with the camera only seeming to pick up dark grays. The phenomenon is referenced somewhat in Jiang's narration, as one character remembers the day they met as gray and overcast, while another recalls a blue sky. The battle scenes are tremendously impressive, especially the film's intense centerpiece, which is an astounding piece of work. Directors Peter Chan and Wilson Yip, along with eight credited writers, make sure to give similar attention to the scenes in court, making them nearly as dangerous as combat, and a sharply contemporary critique on the powers that profit from war. About the only real misstep is the love triangle involving Pang, Zhao, and Lian - compared to the grand conflicts surrounding it, it never quite achieves the same level of import, even though it is treated that way toward the end.

This sort of subplot doesn't hurt an otherwise impressive tragedy. It is a tragedy, though, not the rousing action picture that many of Li's fans might expect. They might just be impressed with what they find, though - even if he's not an action hero here, the man can act a little, too.

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