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During the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, General Pang barely survives a brutal massacre of his fellow soldiers by playing dead, and then joins a band of bandits led by Er Hu and Wu Yang. After fighting back attackers from a helpless village, the three men take an oath to become “blood brothers,” but things quickly turn sour and the three men become embroiled in a web of political deceit, and a love triangle between Pang, Er Hu and a beautiful courtesan.
For more about The Warlords and the The Warlords Blu-ray release, see the The Warlords Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on July 6, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Directors: Peter Chan, Wai Man Yip
» See full cast & crew
The Warlords Blu-ray Review
“In these times, dying is easy. Living is harder.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, July 6, 2010
"War is hell," as Sherman said, but it often makes for a hell of a good film. In battle, the breadth of human emotion is stretched to extremes; moral decisions have immediate consequences, loyalty is more than just an idea, and the bond that forms between soldiers—as explored in Band of Brothers and countless cinematic depictions—is one that's rarely matched in the "civilian" world. In his historical Chinese war drama, The Warlords, director Peter Chan—best known for romances like Perhaps Love—taps into these universal themes with mixed results. A kind of anti-war movie that nonetheless can't help glorifying battlefield heroics—and there are some seriously badass heroics here—The Warlords is a male-bonding movie cloaked as a martial arts epic. And it's certainly cloaked well, as the brutal fighting has a tendency to overshadow the interactions between the characters. Or, to put it more simply, The Warlords gets an "A" for action, but only a "B-" for the resonance of its storytelling.
Set during the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s, The Warlords opens with the loyalist Qing army suffering a staggering defeat. General Qingyun (Jet Li) rises from a battlefield of corpses, the sole survivor, but he's no hero. After spending a night with Liansheng (Xu Jinglei), a peasant woman who nurses him back to health, he confesses that he's a coward, that he played dead to avoid the slaughter. Now a deserter, Qingyun wanders into a village of bandits, led by Er-hu (Andy Lau) and Wu-yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who are about to get the Imperial smackdown for stealing supplies. Qingyung convinces them to join the Qing army—trading certain death for only probable death—and the three men swear a blood oath to stick by one another through thick and thin. (Forget that slice open your thumbs and mash 'em together blood brothers nonsense; here, the blood oath involves each man stabbing a random prisoner to death. Murder. Now that's a tie that binds.) The Imperial War Council reluctantly reestablishes Qingyung as a commander, gives him a paltry army—supplemented by Er-hu and Wu-yang's bandits—and orders him to attack a series of cities that are successively more fortified and difficult to crack. The brotherhood of the three warlords starts to dissolve when the moral complications of war prove too caustic for their alliance. Of course, it doesn't help that Qingyung is having an affair with Liansheng, who turns out to be Er-hu's wife. Ouch.
No less than eight screenwriters are credited for the script—never a good sign—and The Warlords does have a certain lack of thematic cohesion that suggests a few too many cooks in the cinematic kitchen. The internal drama of blood and brotherhood that plays out between the three men is presumably the heart of the story, but there's not much meat to it and the characters' motivations can be summed up without much effort. Qingyung is driven by his former cowardice to become powerful, and he'll do whatever it takes to succeed—even killing 5,000 unarmed prisoners. Er-hu, who we think is a hardened bandit, is more of a softie than he seems, and balks at Qingyung's coldhearted tactics. And Wu-yang, much like Kaneshiro's character in Red Cliff, simply waits to see which way the wind will blow, so to speak, before he makes a decision. Having Qingyung in an affair with Er-hu's wife is a purely soap opera-ish touch, a machination that leads to a late-in-the-game plot turn that seems almost unnecessary. (We also never really get to know Liansheng. She spends most of the movie staring vacantly into the distance, a tear running down her cheek.) Still, the last act does pick up with the introduction of political intrigue. When we see members of the war council playing go—a kind of military strategy game—we realize that the three warlords are really just pieces on someone else's board.
The story may not be as affecting as Peter Chan envisioned—reportedly, he was inspired to make a film about male bonding after seeing John Woo's A Better Tomorrow—but the director handles the battle scenes with visual dynamism. Better known for witty comedies, sensuous love stories, and his entry in the Three…Extremes horror anthology, Chan is surprisingly adept at staging large-scale action. While shaky-cam and tight framing occasionally obscure the fight choreography, Chan often pulls back wide to let us observe the more intricately staged events. There's one scene where Jet Li impales a guy on a pike and throws him onto a barrel of a cannon, which backfires, taking out several more soldiers. Then, Li turns to face six spearmen and cuts off all of their legs with a single swipe of his weapon. It's such an impressive moment of out-and-out violence that I had to rewind and watch it two more times. Chan really plays up the brutality of war —he shows arterial blood spurting galore and, post-battle, lets the camera linger on mutilated bodies—but the effect is less oh my gosh, look how horrible war is and more holy crap, Jet Li is a badass. And he is. Kaneshiro and Lau get their moments to both convincingly emote and hack limbs awesomely, but Li gives a truly terrific performance, conflicted and enraged. Though there's been a surfeit of Chinese war epics lately, Li's presence alone is enough to make The Warlords worth watching.
Note: This version of the film has the 113-minute length of the U.S. theatrical release, which has been pared down from the original 127-minute runtime. Many of the battle sequences have been trimmed slightly, and some minor subplots removed, so those looking for the complete, unaltered film may want to consider importing the Region-A Hong Kong release by Megastar.
The Warlords Blu-ray, Video Quality
Blu-ray.com staff writer Dr. Svet Atanasov previously reviewed the Region-A Hong Kong release of The Warlords by Megastar, and if you check out the screenshots in his review, you'll notice the transfer differs quite a bit from the one offered here by Magnolia Home Entertainment. The biggest change is that contrast has been seriously pushed for the U.S. release, often resulting in crushing blacks and hot highlights. There's also more of a distinct color cast to the image, sometimes yellow and sometime greenish. Without confirmation from the director/cinematographer, it's hard to tell which look is more "right," but both have their merits. If a bit stylized and overheated compared to the Hong Kong release, this version is still very impressive. The film has a gritty, grimy, almost Saving Private Ryan-type aesthetic, with stark gradation, selectively desaturated neutral colors, and vivid blood reds. Skin tones, though, do look a little too yellowed/bronzed in this release. Clarity is exceptional throughout, defining skin and clothing texture, resolving the intricacies of armor and weaponry, and detailing the mixture of mud and blood caked on soldiers' faces. Grain varies, purposefully intensifying during battle scenes and seeming finer elsewhere, but it's always present, giving the image a warm, filmic texture. The print is clean, and compression-related distractions are entirely absent.
The Warlords Blu-ray, Audio Quality
While the MegaStar release contained a lossless Mandarin 7.1 surround track, this U.S. version offers DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes in both Mandarin and English. Do note that the disc defaults to the unsurprisingly awful English dub, so you might want to have a fiddle in the set-up menu before starting the film. (Unless, that is, you're keen on hearing an Australian accent issue inexplicably forth from Andy Lau's mouth, which is, I'll admit, pretty funny for about ten minutes.) Despite being pared down from 7.1 to 5.1 channels, this is a strong mix, with a sweeping dynamic range and lots of engaging surround channel usage. The battle scenes, as you'd hope and expect, are sonically hectic, putting you right in the middle of the action. Swords clash and clang all around, gunfire cracks and arrows zip through the rears, and cannons explode with room-rattling LFE output. If you turn this one up, your subwoofer will definitely get a workout, both from the artillery and the propulsive, drum- heavy score. Some forum members have commented on changes in the soundtrack between the MegaStar and Magnolia releases, but I've not yet been able to watch the MegaStar version to compare. For most viewers, this will likely be a sounds perfectly fine since you don't really know what you're missing scenario. Dialogue is always easy to understand, and the subtitles appear at the bottom of the frame in easy-to-read white lettering.
The Warlords Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Making of The Warlords Featurettes (SD, 38:46)
There are fifteen featurettes in all, covering every aspect of the film's production, from the casting and themes to the battle scenes, gore effects, and horse training.
The Warlords 117 Days: A Production Journal (SD, 35:23)
More of a "breaking of" documentary than a "making of" featurette, this video production journal chronicles the extreme challenges the production crew faced trying to complete The Warlords. Includes loads of on-set footage and interviews with the director and actors.
The Warlords: Behind the Scenes Special (SD, 17:46)
Another "making of" production documentary, with lots of clips from the film.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD, 27:16)
A wide variety of excised scenes and extended beats.
HDNet: A Look at The Warlords (1080i, 4:38)
A typical HDNet promo, featuring an interview with director Peter Chan.
International Trailer (SD, 3:40)
Also From Magnolia Home Entertainment Blu-ray (1080p, 8:28)
Includes trailers for Survival of the Dead, District 13: Ultimatum, Mother, and Red Cliff, along with a promo for HDNet.
The Warlords Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While the themes of brotherhood and the conflict between the three warlords don't come through as clearly as I suspect director Peter Chan had intended, The Warlords is a solid entry into the Chinese historical martial arts epic canon. Jet Li fans should definitely take note, as not only does he kick ass with his usual deftness, but he also gives one of his better acting performances in recent memory. There are some fairly significant differences between Magnolia's U.S. version and MegaStar's Hong Kong release—a shortened running time, a transfer with pushed contrast, 5.1 instead of 7.1 audio—so some viewers may want to import the Region-A Megastar disc. For most, though, this Magnolia release of The Warlords will more than suffice; it looks great—if a bit different— sounds wonderful, and comes with several substantial bonus features. Recommended.
The Warlords: Other Editions
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The Warlords Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Warlords Announced on Blu-ray - April 26, 2010
Magnolia Home Entertainment has announced the epic war movie The Warlords (Tau ming chong) for release on Blu-ray on June 29. This 2007 Hong Kong production, despite its production budget and cast (starring Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) only saw a very ...
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