Magnificent Chinese locations are the only reason to see this unbalanced war epic about a series of 19th-century civil wars fought by three blood brothers. Jet Li plays General Pang Qingyun, a peasant-turned-soldier who is the sole survivor of a tremendous battle. Pang falls in love with Lian (Jinglei Xu), the woman who nurses him back to health, unaware that she is wife to a man to whom he will swear an eternal bond. Pang takes up with bandits led by Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Jincheng (Takeshi Kaneshiro), with whom he swears a blood oath that requires murdering three innocents to prove their mutual commitment. The violent pact is a pale foreshadowing of the brutality the men will conduct along their band of mercenary soldiers in lopsided battles that make up most of the film's bleak action. A bloated musical score further undermines the relentless carnage with an inappropriate soundtrack that hits your ears like sandpaper on glass. Attempts to incorporate Li's martial arts skills into the historic narrative seem forced, and never resonate with any degree of thematic satisfaction. Set at the time of the Taiping Rebellion, "The Warlords" is about mercenaries so addicted to war they don't even do it for money. When pure bloodlust is its own reward, there isn't much incentive for the audience to offer any empathy whatsoever. Kurosawa turns in his grave.
Rated R. 113 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
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