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The Warlords Review

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A heroic tale of three blood brothers fight against political upheaval and war. Based on the classic tale 'The Assassination of Ma' from the Qing Dynasty.

★★★★

In 1870, governor ma of Liangjiang was assassinated by a comrade who never explained why he committed the crime. The story was the basis of classic 1973 kung fu film Blood Brothers, and remains an unsolved historical mystery. Though martial arts master Jet Li takes the lead, this epic remake of Blood Brothers is light on fast footwork and instead plays as a grand-scale tragic war movie about a doomed, compromised visionary. Think Lawrence Of Arabia, with more mud than sand, or Patton: Lust For Glory with swords and arrows.

Jet Li breaks with his usual image in an opening scene which finds General Pang playing dead on a battlefield and running away in shame. After a one-night stand with a nurturing peasant woman (Xu Jinglei) which will haunt the rest of his life, he falls in with bandits — Takeshi Kaneshiro’s tagalong Jiang and Andy Lau’s commanding Zhao. Thereafter, the blood brotherhood becomes the motor of a complicated plot — you’ll need to Wiki the Taiping Rebellion to follow in detail. The blood brothers turn round the fortunes of the Imperial army in assaults on two rebel strongholds that offer contrasting set-pieces: a heroic victory in battle, with Pang fighting on despite a lance stuck through his shoulder, and a massacre of prisoners that effects the morally dubious conquest of a besieged city and cracks the bond between our heroes.

In his martial arts films, Li is usually a slim Buddha, effective in action but otherwise bland. Here, with a none-too-well-shaven head, he delivers a different, powerful performance as a complex antihero — an idealist who commits more and more atrocities in order to gain the power he hopes to use to fight large-scale injustices. Lau, of the Infernal Affairs films, matches him as the honest thief agonised by his friend’s ruthlessness — it’s a performance that gains in subtlety as the film progresses (Lau also has one terrific single combat scene with an honourable enemy commander). Given the way Chinese epics go, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say both stars get standout death scenes.

The guy story is so strong that conventional romantic interludes with the woman torn between two men could easily have been dropped.