As large-scale Chinese movie epics go, “The Warlords” has the ingredients lined up: complicated historical backdrop, cast of zillions, big stars holding down the foreground.
With those elements in place, it’s hard to go wrong if you’re into this kind of movie, and “The Warlords” doesn’t blow it. But you’d better be into this kind of movie.
Loosely (I assume) based on history, “The Warlords” reaches back only as far as the mid-19th century, although the warfare on display makes it look and feel as though it could be set long before that.
The film’s protagonist, Gen. Pang, begins the movie in a startling situation. He’s the only survivor of a great massacre, which he survived by hiding under the bodies of his own soldiers.
Pang is played by the great action star Jet Li, who is only becoming more like Steve McQueen as he gets older. Dazed by survivor’s guilt and shame, Gen. Pang is tended by a mystery woman (Xu Jinglei) who will play a larger role in the future action.
Pang is shaken out of his daze when he takes it upon himself to rally an army of bandits and turn them into a real fighting force. He swears an oath of loyalty with the smart, ferocious leaders of the gang, played by Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) and Takeshi Kaneshiro.
This blood oath is given the greatest weight in the movie, and the spectacle of manly friendship is treated as passionately here as it is in other Asian action pictures. In fact, it has somewhat more importance than the large affairs of state that hang in the balance.
The movie does a passable job of making most of those affairs clear, and it certainly brings the battles to life. It is less successful at dramatizing the moral decisions that Gen. Pang makes during his quest; the film hints at the kinds of bloody compromises that must be made in the pursuit of progress, but doesn’t delve too deeply into them.
It’s hard not to compare this movie to John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” which played here recently and which gave a much stronger picture of character and strategy (Kaneshiro played a key role in that, too). “The Warlords,” which was released in China in 2007, feels murkier.
In the final third of the film, the thread becomes more difficult to follow, at least for this viewer. Director Peter Ho-Sun Chan is a little too plodding in his style (his “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” is well-liked by many, though not by me), and the movie’s bluntly earnest approach grinds down after two hours.
Close, but no cigar. In the meantime, “Red Cliff” has come out on a DVD that runs 2½ hours longer than its U.S. theatrical release. That might be the choice for the epic-minded.