Jet Li made a public vow a few years ago to stop making mindless martial-arts films and has, for the most part, stuck to that pledge.
He obviously wants to grow as an actor and, in The Warlords, where he shares the lead with Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro, he gets the chance to do so.
Unfortunately, The Warlords drags and lollygags, suffering from a sense of seriousness and self-importance that saps it of energy and tension.
Not that the battle scenes aren't brutally exciting. When Li, Lau and Kaneshiro take to the battlefield - or get involved in more intimate hand-to-hand, "Warlords" suddenly makes you sit up at attention, But those sequences are too few and far between to give "Warlords" the kind of hard-charging vitality that, say, John Woo's Red Cliff had.
Set in mid 19th-century China, The Warlords is about the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s and its arcane politics. One of the victims of the rebellion is Pang (Li), a general whose entire force is wiped out in an act of treachery by supposed allies. He survives, to his shame, by hiding under dead bodies; afterward, he is taken in by Lian (Xu Jinglei), an understanding woman who turns out to be a courtesan with far-flung connections.
Most of those connections have to do with a bandit clan in the mountains, who take Pang in and, in short order, make him a co-leader with Er-Hu (Lau) and Wu-Yang (Kaneshiro). Together, they set out to fight the corrupt forces that rule China and conquer it for themselves.
The battle scenes - often featuring outnumbered groups getting the best of larger armies - have a dynamic quality that makes them come alive. But the movie seems more interested in the politics of the tale: specifically, the shifting allegiances that ultimately pull, Pang, Er-Hu and Wu-Yang apart, causing them to make new alliances that end up pitting them against each other.
Part of that friction has to do with Lian, who turns out to have feelings for both Pang and Er-Hu. Even as the partners negotiate the treacherous waters of empire politics in the sprawling country, they are caught up in struggles about interpersonal jealousies, as well as differing viewpoints about the meaning of honor among soldiers.
The struggle to maintain honor can produce drama but, in this case, it doesn't. Director Peter Ho-Sun Chan at one point dramatizes the slaughter of 4,000 soldiers by an army of archers by focusing on the archers' tear-stained faces and the agony of Er-Hu, who had promised to set those soldiers free and is ultimately chained up to prevent him from doing so. So we see the archers, shooting and crying (while we hear screams from the victims), and Er-hu, chained and howling. Arty, but ineffective.
Li, Lau and Kaneshiro all bring great gravity and even some feeling to these roles. But they can't goose the turgid pacing or force Chan to make stronger story choices. Despite their efforts, The Warlords dawdles to a long-overdue conclusion robbed of its power by its pace.