Plot: During the Qing Dynasty, a general (Jet Li), left for dead on the battlefield, teams up with two bandit brothers (Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro), and becomes one of the most feared conqueror's in the Imperial Army.
Review: THE WARLORDS marks something of a departure for Jet Li. Despite the subject matter- this is far from a kung fu film, and about as different from recent Wuxia films like HERO, as you can get. It's a brutal and gritty war film, that provides Jet Li with his best role in years.
Right from the get go, you can tell this is going to be a major stretch for Li. As it opens, he's cowering under the dead bodies of his fallen soldiers, trying to pass himself off as dead, and once he finally makes his escape- we get a long scene where his character just completely breaks down, and is overcome by the loss of his men. Heck, you even see him cry- which I believe is a first for Li. I recent years, Li has expressed a desire to move beyond martial arts film, and I think THE WARLORDS is very much a film born out of that desire. It really does prove that Li has a lot to offer as an actor (at least if he's not hampered by trying to speak english)- and bodes well for the days where he's no longer to pull off the gravity defying martial arts we've come to expect from him.
I think a lot of credit for Li's performance iis due to director Peter Chan. While not really well known outside Asia (although years ago, he did direct an American romantic comedy called THE LOVE LETTER), Chan is a top director in his homeland- although this marks his first historical action film. It's actually something of a remake, as the story (which is true) was previously filmed by Shaw Bros., in the seventies. However, I'd be willing to wager that this has fairly little in common with that film.
Obviously, this film was produced on lavish budget, as the scale of the film is massive. The battle scenes have hundreds of extras, and CGI appears to be almost completely absent, meaning of a lot of this was re staged practically- which is almost unheard of these days. The film also has a very polished look, but at the same time is gritty and real.
It's also important to mention that this is by no means "a Jet Li film". While he plays the lead, he has to share the spotlight this time with Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro- both of whom are just as famous is Asia as Li is (and in Lau's case- maybe more so). Both actors are fantastic. While I've always thought Kaneshiro was a bit of a pretty boy, he's gotten much better as an actor the older he's gotten. As for Lau- he's great as always (for more Lau- check out INFERNAL AFFAIRS- remade as THE DEPARTED, and the excellent RUNNING OUT OF TIME).
Probably my only issue with THE WARLORDS is that it feels a little short. At 124 minutes, the film is a little too brief for something with such a massive scale- although one of the Fantasia Fest programmers told me later that we were watching the North American print, and that the original Chinese version is actually about 10-15 minutes longer.
Considering that THE WARLORDS was released in Asia two years ago (where it was a MASSIVE hit) I have my doubts that it'll ever get a large scale North American release, which is a shame as it's a film that really demands to be seen on the big screen. However- if you're a fan of Li's, or this type of film- you should definitely check it out, as it's a nice antidote to some of the more fanciful martial arts epics we've been getting lately.