Jet Li's risky decision to trust his acting rather than his action skills pays off in this mid-19th century Chinese civil war drama that is actually deserving of that over-used epithet 'epic'. Taking real historical events as a bouncing-off point, veteran Thai genre filmmaker Peter Chan succeeds in telling a gripping tale rather than just giving a history lesson. He judges the balance of stunning, brutal battle sequences and intense melodrama to great effect. Beginning with Li's commander Pang emerging as the sole survivor from a massacre, the decade-spanning story follows Pang's journey back to leadership as he joins outcast Generals Zhao (Andy Lau) and Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and they raise an unstoppable army. But as the political power of the three-person 'brotherhood' increases, so too do tensions within the friendship, with devastating consequences.
Setting The Warlords apart from other similar efforts (this year's Mongol being a recent example) is its successful integration of character development and action. Each set-piece, from an impressively-staged ambush sequence to an enormous pitched battle, serves the story, and Chan is careful not to repeat himself for the sake of redundant spectacle.
While beginning with a few too many plot strands for its own good - a love-triangle element is particularly unnecessary - the film's central focus becomes the tumultuous relationship between the three generals, and builds to a powerfully tragic conclusion.
Selected release from Fri 7 Nov.