The concept of "blood brothers" in "Warlords" is self-contradictory and self-defeating. Loyalty among men, especially fighting men, is paramount on the battlefield. There, survival depends entirely on brothers watching each others' backs. Life-debts get owed and repaid countless times over. There is no other binding force like facing death together, and surviving, of course.
Things get a lot more complicated in peace time. Loyalties are put to the test when it comes to deciding on how to treat unarmed prisoners-of-war. Ethics, morals, honour and justice are fine ideals, but the practicalities of war necessitates that such have to be put aside for the success of the campaign. Among the three sworn brothers, played by Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro, there's bound to be a difference of opinion in such a life-and-death decision, and an army can only have one commander.
Other conflicts arise over the division of the spoils of war, and the code-of-conduct of soldiers during the sacking of a fallen city. Lau's greatest concern is for the welfare of the men who serve in the regiment, while Li's war doctrine is victory at any cost. Kaneshiro is stupidly caught between the two poles, unimaginative and consequently unhelpful in his sorry attempts to keep the integrity of the brotherhood intact.
Their brotherhood is based on some rigidly inflexible premises. The blood they share comes from each of them slaying an innocent non-combatant captive; their oath prescribes death on any that comes between their brotherhood. Although Li says the oath, he also reveals that he does not believe in it. As a General of the Qing army, he knows that keeping such an oath is impossible. And when Qing Dynasty politics takes an interest in Li's Shan army, the brotherhood is doomed to fall apart.
Of the movies this year, "Warlords" comes closest to depicting war is hell. "300" boasts some lovely fight choreography, but "Warlords" is just brutal hand-to-hand melee combat. Li demonstrates some wushu technique but it is understated compared to the wild swinging of bladed weapons and the thrust of spears of men concerned not so much about winning as they are about just surviving to see another day.
The greatest tragedy is that this war means nothing to the people who are fighting it. Li's Shan army fights on the behalf of a government that cares nothing for it. The soldiers have enlisted only so that they have food to eat, and to send they wages back to their families who are otherwise destitute.
It's a dark movie, and the lack of pretty faces underscores this point. Lau at some angles reminds me of DiNiro, Li is heavy-set and balding, and Kaneshiro and his scraggly beard just looks goofy as he dithers between his two brothers. Even the female lead played by Xu Jinglei (who's she?) while reasonably pleasant-looking, is no mega-babe and we wonder why she is the object of affection for both Lau and Li, as if there's only one woman in all of China. While she isn't exactly a cause of conflict between the two, their triangular relationship does become too much for the dimwit Kaneshiro to process, and his response is legend among village idiots to this day.
Closing thought: The feast Li prepares in Lau's honour looked very much like what B-lo, Mel, NBS and I, and several other people around us were having for lunch today. That so many of us can now eat like how only Generals of the past could is quite a staggering thought. That's not something we should take for granted.