In the opening minutes of Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s historical epic The Warlords, Jet Li rises from a corpse-strewn battlefield as a voice on the soundtrack puts us in Li’s head, saying that “when he crawled out from under the bodies he was already a dead man.” In the scenes that follow, Li makes his way to a village, where he meets up with two sympathetic bandits: Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. When the three help save starving peasants from an invading horde, they pledge loyalty to each other, and recruit their own army to repel the marauders terrorizing the country. Soon, their mob begins amassing considerable power of their own, and Li wins converts with his vision of freedom for all. But tensions develop between the three allies as a woman distracts them, and as Li pursues a scorched-earth policy driven as much by vengeance—and misguided alliances—as by strategy.
Based loosely on the 1973 kung fu classic The Blood Brothers, The Warlords relies too much on combat movie clichés and corny sentiment, weighted down by speeches about heroism and hypocrisy, and bloody illustrations of how War Is Hell. (Also, though the production design is largely impeccable, some of the wigs and fake beards look like they came from a discount costumery.) But unlike some adventure movies rooted in actual history, The Warlords is never hard to follow; even with the dialogue kept to a minimum, everyone’s goals and motivations remain crystal clear. As for the battle sequences, they’re suitably intense, especially in the early going, when Li, Lau, and Kaneshiro, low on manpower, rely on wicked-looking traps and ambushes to get the job done. As their ragtag squad snakes through the countryside, clad in black, they’re a visual representation of a malignant strain of violence that makes it impossible to behave honorably. Or, as Li articulates their dilemma: “In these times, dying is easy. Living is harder.”