The Warlords (投名狀; Exactly What It Says on the Tin) is a Hong Kong Epic Movie directed by Peter Chan and starring Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Xu Jinglei. Released on December 13, 2007, The Warlords is set during the 1860s when the Taiping Rebellion was underway in the late Qing Dynasty of China. The story is based loosely on the Real Life assassination of Qing general Ma Xinyi.
Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) is a general of the Qing army and following a crushing defeat by the Taiping where he's the Sole Survivor, he stumbles onto a village and is nursed back to health by a woman named Liansheng (Xu Jinglei). The village is comprised of bandits, who rob convoys from the Qing and Taiping for their supplies in order to feed themselves. Following a successful raid on a Taiping battalion, the Qing army attacks the village and seizes the supplies for themselves. Through convincing Liansheng's husband Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau), Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and other men in the village, Qingyun reforms an army to fight the Taiping, in hopes the village won't have to starve from the on-going war. To secure their friendship, Qinyun, Erhu and Wuyang swear a Blood Oath, with death as their punishment should they break their new bond.
The film plays heavily on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: ideally, the Blood Brothers want to end the war quickly as possible, with hopes their loved ones back home can be safe and secure; cynically, The Warlords showcases how brutal one of the most bloodiest, largest and near-forgotten conflicts in Asia truly was, but also how ambition, back-door politics, and conspiracies are what drives men to deeper extremes.
Notably, The Warlords was the first collaboration between Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro in a decade, ever since Dr Wai In "The Scripture With No Words".
The Warlords contains examples of the following:
- Ambition Is Evil: Played with - sure, Qingyun is rapidly gaining prestige and notoriety for quickly recapturing Taiping-occupied territory, but that begins to be taken as a sign he wants to overthrow the Qing lords. The fact the Empress Dowager orders Qingyun's assassination, on the case that an "outsider" shouldn't be holding a powerful position when she appoints him as Governor of Nanjing, says it all.
- Badass Beard: Erhu, until he shaves it off
- Barehanded Blade Block: During the bandit raid against a Taiping convoy, Qingyun saves Wuyang before a Mook has the chance to kill him by doing this.
- Bear Trap: Erhu, Wuyang and their villagers fight and ambush a Taiping convoy marching through a deep valley by setting up a number of these hidden in the ground, ensnaring a few of the horses and soldiers at the front of the convoy.
- Blade on a Stick: Qingyun uses a massive guandao in the epic desert battle, which he uses with deadly effect by killing waves and waves of rebels using this weapon.
- Blood Oath: Sworn between the three brothers.
- The Cavalry: In this case, this trope is already present at the first battle, but they don't make a move since they're only reinforcements. It's only until Qingyun's men of 800 manages to anger and rouse the rebel army of 5000 that they do move in and assist.
- Cavalry Betrayal: General He Kui towards Qingyun at the beginning of the film, hence Qingyun's disgust for the former throughout the film.
- Cacophony Cover Up: Qingyun's assassin uses cannon fire during his inauguration as Governor of Nanjing to drown out the sound of rifle shots.
- Corrupt Bureaucrat: Mixed with Corrupt Politician, The Qing lords and He Kui
- Decapitation Presentation: Wuyang in the first battle with the rebel commander's head
- Determinator: Even though Wuyang is getting a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown by Qingyun when he goes to kill him, the former still staggers towards the latter.
- Downer Ending: Erhu is assassinated on the Qing lords' orders to Qingyun, Wuyang kills Liansheng because he wrongly believes Qingyun's affair with Liansheng motivated the former, and he fulfills the Blood Oath by ending Qingyun's life. Wuyang becomes The Scapegoat in Qingyun's death - a convenience since the Qing lords and the Empress Dowager were already plotting to assassinate Qingyun from the start. Wuyang is executed two months later, and the conspiracy is covered up. All major characters do not survive.
- Epic Movie: According to the director, The Warlords isn't meant to be a martial arts film; instead, the movie plays on an individual's affections and camaraderie with their fellow man, citing A Better Tomorrow being a large influence here.
- A Father to His Men: Erhu deeply cares for his subordinates compared to the other two of the Freudian Trio. Deconstructed as this trait and using the royal treasury to pay his soldiers provides an excuse for the Qing lords to manipulate Qingyun to assassinate Erhu.
- Face Death with Dignity: The Number Two to the dead Suzhou Taiping general quiets his troops just before Wuyang orders the Qing army to execute them.
- Freudian Trio: Qingyun (superego), Erhu (id), Wuyang (ego)
- Gory Discretion Shot: The camera focuses only Wuyang and the Qing archers during the Suzhou massacre. The fact Wuyang and the archers are disgusted and reluctant to kill the helpless rebels, yet know what will happen if they don't, says it all. It's safe to say that at this point in the movie, things start going downhill.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: Discussed thoroughly during the Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil scene (see below)
- Grievous Harm with a Body: During the big battle scene with the rebels, Qingyun impales a rebel with his halberd, then hurls the rebel on top of a cannon, causing the cannon to misfire and crush several nearby rebels instead.
- Heroic BSoD: Erhu after Qingyun orders the surviving Taiping troops at Suzhou to their deaths.
- Heroic Sacrifice: A Mook saves Qingyun during the first battle by putting himself directly at a Taiping cannon before it fires. Ludicrous Gibs ensue.
- Honor Before Reason: The Taiping general of Suzhou dies willingly in a duel against Erhu, since he wants to save the city's starving citizens (including his troops) after a year-long siege by the Qing. Erhu complies his request; unfortunately, Qingyun sees it differently.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Qingyun kills an entire contingent of Taiping prisoners of a surrendered city after the The Siege to prevent food shortages from bringing them along their journey as prisoners, so the Qing can quickly recapture Nanjing — whose populace outnumbers that city — to prevent his military/political rival He Kui from committing Rape, Pillage, and Burn over it. Both his subordinates and Erhu are unhappy about the ordeal.
- Kick Them While They Are Down: Like the entry in I Did What I Hadto Do, Qingyun's reasons also includes lack of large supplies to feed prisoners-of-war, nor does he trust them if they're conscripted; even if they are released, he fears they will join up with another Taiping regiment. Ultimately, he demands their execution by volleys of arrows. To put a salt upon the wound, average citizens were also part of The Siege.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Before the penultimate battle between the Qing army and the rebels, a Taiping messenger marches up and declares that the rebels outnumbers the Qing army by over a few thousand men, and they should consider surrendering. Erhu removes the messenger's head before he could continue any further.
- Knife Nut: Wuyang really loves using daggers and always carries two around.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Wuyang discovers Liansheng is having an affair with Qingyun and falsely believes Erhu's death is arranged by Qingyun because of it, leading him to kill Liansheng.
- Rain of Arrows: Can be seen in one of the battle scenes.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Two young Qing soldiers have their way with some captive women after the army captured a city. While Erhu claims it's normal since their army has already committed Rape, Pillage, and Burn after taking the city (and given three days to so), Qingyun orders their execution, citing anarchy if he lets his soldiers have their way with anything, but also to personally prove his men are ethically and morally better than He Kui's troops.
- Rape, Pillage, and Burn: An entire montage of this when the Qing army conquers a Taiping-occupied city
- The Rival: He Kui to Qingyun
- Rock Beats Laser: Even though the Taiping army in the first battle are armed with 200 rifles, they're still no match for basic archers, led by an infantry charge. Justified since the Qing army are given faulty rifles, but they also combine it with We Have Reserves by promising theier soldiers higher pay to act as Human Shields for the archers.