The Warlords (Tau ming chong) Movie Review

It isn’t clear if “Warlords” is supposed to be a comedy or an adventure thriller but it will only appeal to those who appreciate the screaming cast of thousands

A film of battle, heroism and political betrayal, “Warlords” is Cecil B. DeMille gone Asian. The lines are constructed and delivered in an over-the-top fashion that forms a great Oriental parallel to John Travolta’s recent buddy cop flick “From Paris With Love.” Or perhaps John C. Scott in “Patton.” In support of the position that this is a serious film, made to be taken seriously, the costumes, seemingly limitless cast and cinematography are spectacular. The film carried off the Asian Film Award for Best Visual Effects in 2008 and was nominated for five other awards in that competition. The other award nominations included the outstanding cinematography and the editing that must have been incredibly challenging.

This production features realistic weapon props and fight scenes, including traditional pummeling with sticks, as opposed to the more spectacular flying blade fights. This is dull in the context of a horror film or a full-out war movie like “Saving Private Ryan.” The good news is that the horrific flying blood and body parts are subdued in favor of the more significant aspects of the film such as the sets, photography and, oh yes, the acting.

Compared to earlier movies in the genre the flying martial arts have been eliminated, which has to be a relief to the audience. The fights are no longer the stuff of fantasy but the gritty violence of the old school style. War is conducted one death at a time, mano-a-mano. Dirty make-up is combined with struggles on the feet and on the ground by the wounded and dying as well as the fighting fit. The warriors are exhausted, covered with mud, scared, confused and contradicting each other. Such is war, then and now.

However, in this screening the sound was much too loud. Because of this the various nonsensical cheers and exhortations of the warlords and the cast of thousands beat the listener over the head like so many truncheons. Perhaps this is intentional, to underscore the grandeur and importance of the whole affair. Nonetheless it will make some viewers uncomfortable if not downright cranky and undercut the aesthetic potential of the film. If you are sensitive to loud noises in non-understandable foreign languages, take earplugs.

In support of the position that this is a serious film, made to be taken seriously, the costumes, seemingly limitless cast and cinematography are spectacular. The filmmakers chose to put their money into the acting prowess of a few and kept the sets simple. In this way the funding could go to the excellent costumes and weapons props.

By the end of the film the pretzel logic, spotty sub-titles, changing loyalties and blasting sound levels render many in the audience walking wounded. Many of the lines are yelled rather than simply pronounced. Whether it is due to poor translation or to inconsequential screenwriting many of the lines are clipped and mysterious. The film asks a lot of the audience in forgiving these shortcomings and assuming that any lack of misunderstanding is the fault of the viewer and not the filmmaker.

There is a romantic love triangle in the film but it is so deeply hidden in the herds of soldiers and swinging clubs that one has to watch carefully to pick it out. In spite of that, this is a fun flick to watch just for the hugeness of it—honor, loyalty, punks, misfits, good old-fashioned horses, waves of deadly arrows and those kitschy spear-hook combinations with razor sharp scythes at the end. Perhaps best not to worry too much about the plot.

Directed by: Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip
Written by: Tin Nam Chun and Junli Guo

Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro

Release: April 2
MPAA: Rated R for sequences of strong violence
Runtime: 126 minutes
Country: China / Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Color: Color