Jet Li’s reputation was put under strain when he started focusing on Hollywood movies. Following the success of Lethal Weapon 4, the once renowned martial artist became increasingly mocked as each new English language feature seemed to utilise less and less of his martial arts skill and render his attempts at acting in a foreign language laughable. Romeo Must Die, The One and War were some of the forgettable movies he lent his name to until he returned to China for Hero in 2002 and delivered one of the performances of his career. Chinese battlefield epic The Warlords has won a string of awards in his home country, and is further proof of his abilities away from the fat paychecks available in the States.
The Warlords is based on a story from the Qing Dynasty rule of China when three men swore an oath to become blood brothers and lead an army across the country to help restore peace. At their head was Imperial General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) who survived the slaughtering of his troops by General Ho by playing dead. On his way back to civilisation from the battlefield, he encounters Lian (Jinglei Xu) who offers him shelter in a deserted house and sleep together. However, she is gone by the morning and Pang goes on his way where he gets into a fight with Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who recognises his abilities and takes him back to his village, the home of his “big brother” Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau) and home to his group of bandits. There Pang spies Lian who is Erhu’s partner and when Erhu request Pang leaves, Pang’s jealousy causes him to demand Erhu and Jiang form a brotherhood and lead the bandits into a real battle to win the favour of the Chinese imperial army on a quest for fame and fortune.
Li really can deliever an acting display to be proud of in his mother tongue.
The uniting of three men by a blood oath and the battles they fight together take centre stage in this Chinese epic. Fuelled by Pang’s self-belief and canny tactics, Erhu and Jiang quickly form a bond of trust as the focus is kept on the development of this relationship while the battle scenes are kept quick and to the point. Their relationship becomes fractured as Pang pushes on for success in winning key cities despite a lack of provisions for their men and wavering support from the government, yet it is the subtext of Pang jealousy which plays out a dramatic conclusion of betrayal.
The Warlords features fine performances from the three leads of Li, Lau and Kaneshiro, and shows Li really can deliever an acting display to be proud of in his mother tongue. His merciless Pang displays all the virtues of a man who demands control of all things in his life, letting no one stand in his way. He dishes out orders to Erhu and Jiang who both find it increasingly hard to obey, yet do so to honour their oath which will eventually be the downfall of all three. There are times when The Warlords feels a little hurried and lacks finesse, but at its heart is a classic story of misplaced trust and the single-mindedness of Pang’s desires destroying those closest to him. It makes for a compelling drama set to a backdrop of battlefields and brotherly honour torn to sheds by a woman.