'The Warlords' opens with a brutal battle between two rival warring factions. The result is a bloodbath. An entire field of nothing but mangled bodies. It appears only one man is left alive. His name is Pang (Jet Li). Pang finds himself lost, and wanders into a town of bandits and thieves ruled by the incomparable Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and his brother Wu Yang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
After the town is raided by the general who betrayed Pang in the first battle, Pang, Er-Hu, and Wu Yang form a brotherhood. Sealed with a blood oath, they swear to protect each other above all else. Anyone found harming their brother shall surely be put to death.
Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, this is a sprawling epic that takes place over dozens of years. We watch as these three brothers grow closer after every battle. We watch as they rise in the ranks of the army, with Pang becoming a general himself. Pang becomes power hungry, forgetting the real reason he became a soldier and formed a brotherhood with Er-Hu and Wu Yang.
Even though the movie is epic in scope, it really isn't epic in nature. We never really come to know many of the characters introduced to us. Er-Hu is the only one worthy of much thought. Li's Pang is a wooden character, and Wu Yang simply stands around waiting for whichever brother will make a decision.
'The Warlords' isn't without emotion though. Pang and his crew are set to conquer China and lay waste to some of the largest cities in the area, all in the name of peace. Haven't we heard that before? If it's really peace they're fighting for, it comes with a very steep price. Thousands upon thousands die.
As is so often the case, conflicting feelings towards a woman cause conflict amongst the characters. Er-Hu and Pang both have feelings for the same woman. After all they've been through, and the countless battles they've fought side by side, it's still not enough when it comes to the woman they both love. Only problem is the movie really never gives us a clear reason why both men are in love with her. It's hard to understand her relationship to each of them, but no matter. She's gumming up the whole brotherhood, blood will be spilled.
The violence is fairly graphic here, with a few instances calling to mind the Crazy 88 scenes in 'Kill Bill.' Li is a master when it comes to choreographed fight scenes, although Chan's quick cut, fast camera movements aren't the right way to show off Li's abilities. Much of the action is blurred with modern action movie filming standards. A few instances, as when Li liberates 15 pairs of legs from oncoming attackers with on swoop over his sword topped spear, are clearly visible, as the camera backs up and lets us take in exactly what happened. Much of the rest of the film is filled with tight, quickly edited close ups that hinder the overall beauty of the choreography on display.
I'm torn with this movie. I really wanted to like it. It's got all the aspects that I love in Asian cinema, but there's just something missing. It seems too Americanized, too cliché. The large battle scenes seem uninspired. In the end I found myself caring about no one in particular except all the people it seemed Pang and his beloved brothers were slaughtering without provocation. This isn't the way for such principled heroes to act, but maybe they weren't the good guys after all. They did perform their blood oath by coldly killing three unarmed men. These are mean individuals, whatever civilization you come from, they're just mean. No wonder it's difficult to care for any of them.
Magnolia's 1080p AVC encoded transfer of 'The Warlords' takes on a completely different look than the region A locked transfer from Megastar.
For starters, the Magnolia transfer inexplicably has a greenish tinge to the entire movie, while the Megastar release has no such issue. Which is technically right, I cannot tell, but the green does create it's fair share of problems when it comes to the transfer. First of all, contrast is blown entirely out of proportion. There's a scene in which Pang and his crew ambush a caravan traveling through a steep crevasse of rock. The rock is bright white, almost glaringly bright. Like looking at snow when the sun is out. The Megastar transfer features gray, natural looking rock.
Subsequently, many of the skin tones appear a shade or two lighter, and yes, yellower, than they should be. Overall the film has a cloudy appearance. The grain is amped up to maximum overload here. Blacks are oft times crushing to objects, people, and detail. Facial detail looks good, as you can see Li's chapped flaking lips from being at war so long. It's also surprising to see how old Li is actually getting. His facial wrinkles are becoming more pronounced.
The last half of the movie seems to settle down and provide a nicely detailed, colorful high-definition experience, but that greenish tinge leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's a complete mystery as to why it's present on this release of the film. Whether it was intentional or not, I for one could have done without it.
Again we have a difference regarding the Megastar release and this Magnolia release. The Megastar release features a wide-bodied 7.1 surround sound presentation, whereas the Magnolia release only offers a 5.1 presentation. That's not to say this isn't an engaging and all around nice soundtrack, on the contrary, It's very appealing. Much more appealing than say, the video presentation. Dialogue is presented cleanly and clearly through the front channels, while the booming drums of the musical soundtrack add LFE to the mixture. Large battles engulf the listener as swords striking shields clank around the room. Cannon fire produces an almost deafening amount of bass. Thunderous galloping from horses not only produce some deeply satisfying LFE, but also provide the soundtrack with some nicely placed and well executed panning effects as the horses streak across the screen.
This release offers both English and Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Annoyingly, the English dubbed track is used as the default track, so if you want to listen to the original Mandarin being spoken you must select it in the menu before the movie starts. Curiously one of the actors doing the voices in the English dubbed version has an Australian accent. It's just another reason to keep it on the Mandarin and never look back.
The Megastar edition contains an audio commentary from director Peter Chan that this version omits. Also included is the international trailer.
'The Warlords' is an epic about three men who aren't necessarily easy to root for. Maybe they're actually the bad guys all along. I'm still not quite sure. Chan's quickly edited direction works against the awesomely choreographed fight scenes involving Li and the other actors. The video sports a greenish quality that isn't anywhere to be found on the Megastar release, which is puzzling. This green tinge obstructs much of the natural beauty of the film's surroundings. The sound is nicely mixed and provides for an adequate listening experience, but again doesn't sport the 7.1 track provided on the import. The features are noteworthy, but without the audio commentary from Chan, which has been left off this American release, it's far from satisfactory. All in all, 'The Warlords' is for the fans, but the fans of the movie should probably consider buying the Megastar import as opposed to Magnolia's release.