The Warlords

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 14, 2010

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Opens Fri., April 16

Have pity on the aging ass-kicker. Always a shameless mugger, Jackie Chan can spend his 50s comfortably slipping into PG action-thons and Karate Kid reboots. Jet Li doesn’t seem the family-friendly type. Almost every review of The Warlords, which finds a slightly paunchy, mid-forties Li in 19th-century Qing Dinasty intrigue, has chuckled over the numerous times he’s called on to cry.

This isn’t Li’s gradual segue into soap operas. The weeping is the kind you’d see in a John Woo movie—a male weepie, in which vaguley homoerotic dude relationships produce as much bloodshed as tears. But there’s a reason why Woo went for Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung and never Li: He’s a great stone-face, the Buster Keaton of martial artists. His face doesn’t seem to have the muscles required for complex emotions; watching him emote just isn’t why you watch Li. His crying isn’t as tortured as Pierce Brosnan’s walrus-wail in The Greatest, but Li might want to consider ignoring W.C. Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children.

Or at least find less generic historical dramas. Originally released in 2007—one year after Li’s avowed “final action movie” Fearless—The Warlords digs into the civil war of China’s Taiping Rebellion for the story of Pang Qingyun (Li), the lone survivor of a vicious battle. He formed a blood pact with bandit leaders Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Erhu (Andy Lau). Together they impress the Dynasty powers-that-be with their all-bandit army, which they rule with a progressive sense of egalitarianism—for example, rather than sit on a mountain away from the action, the three descend straight into the melee and get dirty too. But, of course, power corrupts, and ambition trumps ideals, leading to a mess of tragedies.

Director Peter Chan tends to do intimate dramas (like Comrades: Almost a Love Story), and even leaves The Warlord’s battle scenes to “action director” Wai Man Yip. But after a refreshingly tough and grimy first half, the remainder turns grotesquely bombastic, with every every other shot a slow-mo image of one of its three male leads screaming in weepy pain. If you must go for overheated Chinese historical sagas, go with the full version of Red Cliff—new to home video!—instead.

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