Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Counter-Revolutionaries: The Warlords

Despite their crypto-Christian apocalyptic ideology, Mao held up the Taiping Rebellion as a forerunner to the Socialist revolution. However, attitudes towards the often brutal Taiping forces have evolved in China to the point where a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production could focus on military commanders loyal to the empire. Featuring plenty of hack-and-slash action and three of Asia’s biggest action stars as blood brother-generals combating the Taipings, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s The Warlords (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

General Pang Qingyun is not lucky to be alive. Knocked unconscious and buried under a pile of corpses, it is his eternal disgrace to be the sole survivor of his army. Trudging aimlessly, he takes refuge in an abandoned hovel with Lian, a mysterious girl. Eventually, he finds her again in a peasant enclave under the protection of two bandits, Zhao Er-Hu and Jiang Wu-Yang. Obviously a tough customer, the outlaws want to send him on his way, lest he attract trouble. Unfortunately, trouble shows up independently when the army of Pang’s old rival starts pillaging the outlaw community.

Swearing a blood brother oath, the three men organize their remnant into a makeshift army to obtain firearms and the ostensive protection of the Imperial court. With nothing to lose, they bring the fight to the Taiping rebels, winning battles despite their inferior numbers and arms. The future starts to look bright, but there are storm clouds on the horizon as Pang struggles to suppress his attraction for Lian, who he has since discovered is the lover of his blood brother-comrade Zhao.

While not as long in the tooth as Jackie Chan, Jet Li is well into his forties, which makes grizzled action hero roles like Pang wise career choices. He still packs plenty of punch in the action scenes, but he looks credibly world-weary as the veteran warrior. Actually, his character is something of a contradiction. At times, he sounds like an idealist, fighting for freedom and western notions of democracy, yet he also makes ruthlessly cold-blooded battlefield decisions. However, Li largely sells both sides of Pang’s persona.

Deliberately glammed down, popular mainland actress (and at one time the world's top ranked blogger according to technorati) Xu Jinglei also brings a restrained but forceful screen presence as Lian. In truth, the love triangle subplot is better than it has to be in a film like this, which at its core is really about Braveheart style combat sequences. The fighting here is realistically old school, with strategy taking a backseat to brute force, as opposing armies simply hurl bodies at each other.

Megastar Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro (recently seen in John Woo’s Red Cliff) are perfectly credible as Zhao and Jiang, but it is Li’s film. He carries it quite well despite the often distractingly overwrought “if I had known then” narration. After all, this is a Chinese historical drama. Everyone expects a tragic ending coming in.

Though it cannot compete with Cliff’s truly epic battle sequences, Warlord delivers plenty of gritty fight scenes and perhaps Jet Li’s strongest dramatic work to date. A more than satisfying fix for fans of Asian action films, it opens this Friday (4/2) at the Cinema Village.