Warlords Review

The Film

Back in 19th century China, Ma Xinji(Jet Li) is leading a division of the Ching army made up of poor and oppressed villagers. In brotherhood with gorgeous pouting Wu-Yang(Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the older, but still gorgeous, Er Hu(Andy Lau), the three friends stand steeped in victories with the politicians at their mercy and the Empress offering high office and riches. Why then will Ma be murdered by a unrepentant Wu-Yang before he can be confirmed as Governor of Nanking?
Based on a real story of an assassination, Warlords is yet more action packed tales of politics, emancipation, and nation-building from China. The slew of recent nationalist pieces about the values of the rising Chinese nation has often been reflective about the sacrifices endured when reaching greater goals. Warlords is no different in this respect, as the solution to Ma's murder is rooted, in the film at least, in broken promises and affairs of the heart.

The film's suggested explanation for the assassination stumbles on an important block in my sensibilities. I need to be honest that I find it difficult to believe that any woman would choose ageing martial artist and serial non-actor Jet Li over man-god Andy Lau. This is my undoubted bias towards Mr Lau who I regard as a fantastic actor and one of the few men who could hold his own in a pout-off with his younger co-star here. This will remain our secret, and I will attempt to put my favouritism to one side in considering the film.

Warlords is an epic tragedy. It begins with Li crawling out from underneath the bodies that he has used to hide himself from a battle that turned into a massacre, before you know it him and Wu Jinglei are having a quickie in a barn, before Li then convincies her husband, and village leader, Lau into taking on the world under Li's military genius. As with epic stories the mechanics are rather less compelling than the action which soon sweeps you up into the film's momentum, leaving you no time to reflect on how unlikely this all seems.
The action choreography that ensures you ignore plot holes comes from the go to man if you want stylish kung fu with carnage, as Ching Siu-Tung orchestrates the blood and mayhem. Lost limbs fly across the screen, arterial spray arcs in slow motion like a crimson fountain, and our three men fight down and dirty on their way to their chivalrous heights.

Lau, Li and Kaneshiro are caring sharing types who feel their footsoldiers' pain and are hell bent on the military successes which will free them and their men from poverty and outsider status.The three men's fraternity and blood oath sits in opposition to the politicians of the Ching court whose every decision reeks of Machaivelli. This generation gap between the chivalrous youngsters and the politicking elders will become another important factor in the eventual assassination.

Thankfully, Warlords is more than historical supposition and viewed without a lot of understanding of the actual events it becomes a fraternal swashbuckler of lust and power. Li and Lau have been cast in each other's roles if you ask me, but Li acts more in this film than any other of his that I have seen, and he makes you believe his ambitious and rather mean streak by the conclusion. Kaneshiro's role feels underwritten, even as the film's narrator, and when both Lau and Li start ignoring him later in the film I was inclined to believe it was because of some very poor headgear he had taken to sporting as well as not saying anything of interest for the last 90 minutes.
Still, mechanics of plot and character to one side, Warlords works as a spectacle mined from the history books. The battles are grim, deliberately confusing and vicious; despite the fact that the men must win as they did in real life, there is plenty of tension and a real sense that defeat is possible. The size of the production is impressive and the use of surviving locations extremely elegant.

I am sure scholars of Chinese history may quibble, but Warlords is basically big screen entertainment with three of the most bankable stars in Asia sprinkling some magic on what might otherwise have been less enthralling fare. As part of the ongoing discussion about national advancement in Chinese cinema, it is a thankful entry that decries political tricks and exposes the human failings of the powerful.

Transfer and Sound

Metrodome's transfer for Battle of Wits I reviewed here recently, and it possessed many of the qualities as the similarly AVC/MPEG4 encoded treatment of Warlords. I criticised that transfer for lacking shadow and fine detail and the same could be said here, but the black levels and contrast are much much better which is as well because this feature is even more desaturated than that one. Edges seem very natural as does the level of grain, and I failed to see much of serious concern other than some aliasing which will be more obvious in the large screenshot below.

For larger screenshot (1920 x 1080) open this link in a new page

The film comes with options of an uncompressed stereo track and a thumping DTS HD MA 5.1 mix. The 5.1 option has strong surround elements with dialogue and effects mixed according to the action and the battle scenes having their own intense atmosphere for the viewer to get lost in. The MA track really enjoys itself during the battles and duels with strong responsive bass, plenty for the subwoofer to do and the whole soundstage made good use of. The stereo track is also strong and it's nice to see a choice offered between HD sound options. The optional English subtitles are very clear and well composed.

Discs and Special Features

Metrodome release the film on a dual layer region free disc with the transfer taking a hefty 25.3 GB. Like on some previous Metrodome discs, my region A Blu-ray player had some issues with playing the extras such as the image being at the bottom of the frame and the subs being cut off, so do make sure your firmware is updated before trying this disc on similarly coded equipment. On a region free player I had none of these issues as I watched the featurettes and deleted scenes offered here.

The deleted scenes appear in the longer cut of the film with a slighly extended introduction, more action from the finale and plenty more based around the siege at Nanking. All of these scenes are presented with LPCM sound. The scenes didn't really add much to the film when I saw the longer version originally and their loss is this version's gain in terms of tempo.

117 Days covers the period from the announcement of the film's production through to the premiere. On location footage is intercut with interviews from the main cast and director along with excerpts from the premiere and opening press conference. It honestly covers some of the difficulties in filming, the casting and the director's own views on his actors - he describes Kaneshiro as perfect for his role because he is "stubborn".

A second featurette invites the cast and crew to consider the film and to celebrate the work involved in the costumery and fight choreography/battle scenes. The director strangely compares his youngest lead's quiet role as being like "keeping Beckham on the bench" and his explosion in the finale is that winning free kick!

The trailer and a short 3 screen essay explaining the historical roots of the story of the real Ma Xinji complete the extras. the essay can be read whilst watching the film which is a nice touch


A solid release from Metrodome which could have been improved by including the two cuts of the film, but which shows a real improvement from the visual quality of Battle of Wits along with two HD sound options. If you have enjoyed the likes of Red Cliff and Fearless then you are going to enjoy this too.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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