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 a Qing general named 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.
The Warlords contain 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: Qingyun during the bandit raid against a Taiping convoy, saving Wuyang before a Mook has the chance to kill him
- Bear Trap: The first battle that Qingyun's army fights is an ambushing a Taiping convoy marching through a deep valley. As part of the ambush, they set a number of hidden bear traps in the ground that snare a few of the horses and soldiers at the front of the convoy.
- Blood Oath: Sworn between the Power Trio.
- The Cavalry: In this case, this trope was 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
- 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/ 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/ Kill 'em All: Erhu is assassinated on orders from Qingyun, Wuyang kills Liansheng because he believes Qingyun's affair with Liansheng motivated the former, and he fulfills the Blood Oath by ending Qingyun's life. Wuyang becomes a convenient scapegoat in Qingyun's death, since the Qing lords and the Empress Dowager were plotting to have Qingyun assassinated from the start. Wuyang is executed two months later, and the conspiracy is covered up.
- 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 cared for his subordinate compared to the other two of The Trio. Unfortunately, this trait and using royal treasury to pay the soldiers provided an excuse for the Qing Lords to manipulate Qingyun to assassinate him.
- 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)
- 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 killed an entire populace of the city after the The Siege to prevent food shortages from bringing them along their journey and quickly recapture Nanjing—whose populace outnumbers that city—to prevent He Kui from commit Rape, Pillage, and Burn over it. Both his subordinates and Erhu were not happy about the ordeal.
- Kick Them While They Are Down: Like the entry in I Did What I Hadto Do on this page, Qingyun's reasons also included lack of large supplies to feed prisoners-of-war, nor does he trust them if they're conscripted; if released, he fears they will join another 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.
- 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 that the protagonists' army were given faulty rifles and also combined with We Have Reserves by promising them higher pay to act as human shields for the archers.