War is hell. It’s futile in that no one is ever really victorious. When the smoke has settled and the bodies piled high, we look back and see that the consequences and the damage are far greater than the result warrants. Peter Chan’s The Warlords opens with a comparison of the death toll of the ancient Chinese war it depicts with that of World War II. It’s clear from the beginning, the anti-war sentiments of this new and bloody epic

The opening sequence already conveys Chan’s vision for the battles in this film. Far from the usual graceful and exciting martial arts warfare in many films before it, The Warlords aims to have it as realistic as possible, where bodily parts are sliced off, blood spurts in generous quantities as soldiers are cut up, and the ugly beginnings of modern warfare has bodies blown to bits. The violence is unrelenting and Chan’s camera charts the battlefield action with the quick, jittery manner befitting such chaotic scenarios. He bathes the film in earthy browns and grays that lend grittiness to the dusty, war-torn landscape during the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping rebellion in the 19th century.

While this could have easily been yet another period action movie, Chan opts instead to focus on its three central characters and how their lives intertwine then drift apart as the awful shadow of war looms ever more darkly over them.

The film opens with Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who narrates how he and his “big brother” Er Hu (Andy Lau) came to know General Pang (Jet Li). Pang had deserted the army after his men were decimated in the battlefield, in a betrayal by the Kiu army who were supposed to be their allies. He eventually runs into the gang of bandits headed by Er Hu and Wu Yang, who duly recruit Pang for his impressive fighting skills.

But after the bandits’village faces a tragedy that leaves them wondering about their future, Pang suggests that they join the army to ensure steady wages and the village’s survival. Pang, Er Hu and Wu Yang then seal a pact in blood and take a pledge to honour their brotherhood. But the deeper they get into the war, the further their friendship and loyalties are tested.

The first half of the film plays it straight like any action film, with huge, sprawling battle scenes and suspenseful combats. But as the film goes along, Chan seems to understand that the action is difficult to sustain, and could turn monotonous and repetitive. The shift into human drama is seamless and interesting, but because the characters are not well developed and realized, much of the emotional intent falls rather flat, despite the actors’ earnest performances. The relationship between them, especially between Er Hu and Wu Yang, is a little hard to grasp when it’s not strongly established. Thus, their motivations are vague at best. One of the most crucial elements in the tension between the characters is the love triangle involving Er Hu, Pang and Lian (Xu Jinglei), but Lian is reduced to appearing fleetingly to throw glances at both men or indulge in desperate lovemaking.

But the ambiguous nature of honour, loyalty, good and evil is nicely reflected in the story that weaves political intrigue, obsessive ambition and human failings into a film that’s never boring for a minute. It’s a melancholy observation on the baleful tragedy caused by divided loyalties and differing ideas of honour.

If only we could empathise more with the characters. Despite that, Jet Li’s performance as a man driven by war and other lusts, whose character gradually unravels and unspools into a terrible mess, is commendable and the best of the three leads.

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