The year is 1861 and China is in the grip of a devastating civil war. One general, Pang (Jet Li) has just suffered a humiliating defeat, with his entire army wiped out while his supposed allies, the forces of General Ho, looked on and did nothing to help. Even more shamefully, Pang pretended to be dead amongst the bodies of his troops so as to escape the eyes of his enemies, with the result that he is the sole survivor and left a shell of a man. He stumbles into the nearest village, barely able to collect his thoughts, and ends up being assisted by a kindly young woman, Lian (Jinglei Xu), a connection that will come back to haunt him...
Warlords, or Tau ming chong if you were Chinese, was one of those epic war movies that proliferated once the budget was there to match the ambitions of filmmakers like Peter Chan, the director here. It had some of the hallmarks, with a brotherly bond between the three main characters tested to the limit, and frankly beyond it, some sweeping battles and a dash of tragic romance, but the look was less stylised than many of its contemporaries, as if opting for a grittier appearance. Certainly its central battle sequence was like a nineteenth century Saving Private Ryan in execution.
And like the Spielberg film, this was deadly earnest all the way through and not above laying on the sentiment either, so why did it feel so dry in execution? Jet Li does well with a role that has him starting out fragile and cowed then ends up obsessed and ruthless, the most interesting of the three "brothers" that Pang ends up swearing an oath with to protect each other as far as they can. The other brothers are Er-Hu (Andy Lau), a warlord who pulls Pang up from degradation to the heights of military success, and his right hand man Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who brought him to Er-Hu's attention.
This trio look to be firm friends, which of course means there will be massive letdowns and betrayals on the way, so Chan and his team of screenwriters (eight of them!) are aiming for the grandest emotions possible within their framework of manly men and bouts of violence, but the mood is so downbeat and regretful that Warlords is hard to enjoy. There's too much of the sense of going through the motions of the traditional epic cinema that leaves you impressed at the sheer scale of the enterprise, but finally unmoved by the relationships (each of the stars gets the chance to do that trying not to cry act with one solitary tear rolling down their face).
And even though the action is energetically staged, it's the rest of the far too stodgy plotting that brings what should have been a rousing historical adventure to its knees. Pang may grow in stature to become more powerful than he ever was before, leading a small army against a larger one so fearsomely that they overcome their better equipped adversaries, but he is diminished in our eyes - and the eyes of Er-Hu and Jiang - because he is not willing to compromise, and eventually orders a massacre of surrendered soldiers that signals his fate. If it wasn't for all this heavyhanded sorrow this could have been a cynical and hard-bitten effort, but you do grow tired of all this angst long before the climax. It looks good, but does not sufficiently engage.