The score for Warlords is credited to three different composers, yet not a piece of music, aside from the opening credits, works. The epic battle scenes that drive the first half of this 19th century period piece are lifeless. The music is lacking force. The meager scope of the music does not match the scale of the battle, ruining otherwise excellent, gory action sequences. Why? It’s not the original score, but replaced with generic junk for the US release.
It’s rare for an entire score to misfire so heavily, but it ruins nearly everything in Warlords. Nothing feels appropriate or correct for the emotion, and while the performances of Jet Li and Andy Lau salvage it some, Warlords never overcomes its dreadful musical accompaniment, all the fault of localization.
What also doesn’t help is the excising of 16-minutes of film from this International edition, muddying the story and making a critical miscalculation of removing a portion of a romantic subplot. This is the saga of three blood brothers, bound to follow each other through countless battles, and it all ends based on a romance that is a mere glimmer in this edited version. The film, already teetering because of the music, is gone with these edits.
This is a complex tale, settled in a tumultuous period in Chinese history. The story centers on General Pang Qingyun’s (Jet Li) rise to power, taking mere bandits against powerful armies to rule the land. He has a vision, one of peace, but as the power comes closer, so does his brazen nature. His decisions are violent and merciless, going against his own people, including those who made a bond to follow.
Sold on scenes of massive battles, Warlords almost certainly gained a US release based on the popularity of another Chinese war epic, Red Cliff. The two films could not be anymore different, although the initial pacing of Warlords may indicate otherwise. This film turns personal, for better or worse, focusing on a slim number of characters deeply woven into the narrative. As such, the pacing feels off, and the final struggle, built on emotion instead of scale, makes the film seem like it goes out on a whimper. The material is enticing, but not necessarily engaging.
Magnolia’s encode for Warlords is questionable early. The contrast appears instantly hot, blown out and absorbing all detail. A shot of a devastated battlefield, filled with bodies at three-minutes in, is devoid of definition, turning into a muddy mess. Up close, beginning around 4:36, facial detail is astounding, at times some of the best available on the format.
Something is still amiss though, and doing a little digging, it turns out the American encode is vastly different from its Region A foreign counterpart. Stills of both editions at DVDBeaver.com reveal the highly pumped up contrast and rather garish color timing changes applied to this reviewed edition. Black levels are remarkably subdued for US audiences, never reaching their true potential, or even coming close to the Megastar Region A effort. For a full comparison between these discs, they have you covered.
As for this US release, it is completely mixed. Close-ups are almost always razor sharp, with extensive detail on clothing, armor, and faces. Dirt, sweat, and other debris is fully resolved, even when the grain becomes noisy and slightly out of control. When the camera pans out, that is not the case. Shots appear compressed and muddy, such as 9:36 during a village establishing shot. The contrast boosting leads to noticeable halos, such as the soldiers marching at 51:12, or the weapons at 41:46. It ruins photography, blowing out the snowy roofs of the structures at 23:08.
Simply put, this does not seem to be a good encode at all, other than when it is in full close-up. At times, it completely breaks down, such as a complex camera pan including numerous small trees at 24:53. It does not hold, leading to extensive shimmering, artifacting, noise, and overall lack of definition. Smoke/dust are completely out of the realm of acceptable, showcasing horrendous noise and other artifacts that should have been noticed. It takes until one of the final shots of the film, a close-up of Jet Li at 1:49:34, that this disc finally looks naturalistic, with decent black levels, dimensionality, and detail. It’s a shame this one was treated so shoddily.
Giving credit where credit is due, the bombastic opening musical theme, heavy on the drums, is outstanding. The smooth subwoofer output is exceptional and clean, the only time this edition’s musical accompaniment will get noticed.
The action scenes, with fine clarity and general spaciousness, sounds tampered with much like the video. The surrounds are not just aggressive, they are enveloping to the point where the stereo channels seem to stop being a part of this mix. A raid at 17:42 seems to be happening entirely behind the viewer despite visual material to the contrary.
At 37:50, cannons come into play, delivering a heavy drop into the low-end. When they fire the room shakes, and when they hit their target, they shake the environment again. It is undoubtedly the highlight of this effort, seemingly in balance with everything else. Dialogue is fine, with no noted reproduction problems, coming through with fine, naturalistic clarity on this DTS-HD Mandarin effort. An English dub (also uncompressed) is better off left alone.
Extras begin with a collection of deleted scenes that run 27:16. These are followed by a section of 15 featurettes, totaling nearly 40-minutes. A production diary is of a little more interest, filled with some great footage, and running 35-minutes. A promotional piece runs 17:46 and can be skipped, while an HDNet promo is worth watching as director Peter Chan discusses his project. Trailers and a BD-Live option that goes nowhere are left.