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Crossed Swords

If The Warlords doesn't slay you, Clash of the Titans surely will.

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Jet Li turns 47 this month. That's certainly a shock, but let's console ourselves that he was only 44 when The Warlords was first released in China and Hong Kong back in 2007 — so he's early-middle-aged in the film, not middle-middle-aged. Why this cast-of-thousands battle epic — Chinese title: Tau ming chong — is just now finding its way to art-and-specialty theaters in the Outer Territories, aka the US, is a tale perhaps best left to entertainment marketing professionals, but it's fun to speculate on possible reasons.

Maybe stateside audiences, in the wake of such Middle Kingdom-based sword-fighting extravaganzas as Mongol and Red Cliff, are burnt out on the intricacies of which-emperor-did-what-to-whom historical tales. Americans are notoriously disdainful of history, especially when they have to read about it in subtitles.

We could look at the ascendancy of Chinese history spectacles as a correlative to China's economic boom. For years, audiences at multiplexes from Shanghai to Guangzhou have been subjected to movies on such hazy subjects as JFK, Evita Perón, and whichever queen of England Cate Blanchett happened to be playing that year. Now it's our turn, and we have to sit through the inner turmoils of the Qing Dynasty.

One thing we can say about those inner turmoils is that they involve severed limbs and yelling on a massive scale. During the Taiping Rebellion in 1861, a defeated general named Pang Qingyun (played by Jet Li) picks himself up from a pile of corpses on a battlefield and stumbles into the stronghold of Zhao Erhu (Andy Lau) and Jiang Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), leaders of an army of bandits. In the time-honored tradition of Chinese actioners, the three lusty fellows discover a common bond among themselves — they like to kill people — and take the blood-brother oath, which typically means they'll be loyal to each other forever, unless a pretty woman comes into the frame.

There's surprisingly little female hanky-panky in The Warlords. A fetching courtesan named Lian (Xu Jinglei) strikes up a romance with General Pang, and that turns into a triangle when Wuyang also takes a fancy to her, but nothing much comes of it except lovelorn gazes into the distance and swelling orchestral music. The raw-boned general is more about swinging an axe than dallying with the ladies. He's a real Veg-O-Matic in the field, and soon the three leaders and their troops, now known collectively as the Shan Regiment, join forces with the Imperial Army to lay siege to the city of Suzhou.

The siege takes five years, plenty of time for actors Li, Lau, and Kaneshiro to show off their martial artistry amid flying arrows and various famines and pestilences. Jet Li has seldom looked so grizzled, and yet the muddier he gets the more dignified he becomes. Canto-pop star Lau and Taiwan-born idol Kaneshiro, veterans of innumerable gang wars and bomb blasts in Hong Kong movies, hold their ground alongside Li in manly fashion. The blood brothers' best-laid plans really begin to crumble when they fall under the influence of the (unseen) Dowager Empress in Beijing and her court of advisors, a clique of cynical, scheming old men.

Are Hong Kong directors Peter Chan (a former John Woo assistant), Wai Man Yip, and their eight screenwriters using the suffocating imperial intrigue as an allegory for similar situations in today's China? Better consult the tea leaves. We know we're in writing trouble when General Pang literally walks on thin ice to illustrate the state of his tricky negotiations with the decaying empire.

About sixteen minutes were cut out of the Chinese release print of The Warlords for the North American market. Maybe that's why, despite the copious war sequences, the denouement arrives as almost an afterthought. Too much eeyaahhh and probably not enough kiss-kiss meow-meow. Something seems to be missing. As it stands, the pic owes more to Braveheart than The Last Emperor. What's going to happen to Jet Li when he can no longer slay ten bad guys with one swing of a lance?

Louis Leterrier's update of Clash of the Titans comes equipped with a set of built-in advantages and obstacles. As a retelling of both the ancient Greek legend of Perseus and of the 1981 Desmond Davis/Ray Harryhausen version of the story, the new film's pedigree is lustrous. Director Leterrier, maker of The Incredible Hulk, would have to work hard to screw this up. And he does.

The Medusa scene is the payoff. The warrior Perseus (Sam Worthington of Avatar), demi-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), needs to secure the head of the awesome, snake-haired she-devil (played by Russian fashion model Natalia Vodianova) in order to use its powers — looking directly at Medusa's eyes can turn a human into stone — against another, scarier monster, the awful Kraken, who aims to destroy Argos, home of Perseus' girlfriend Andromeda (Alexa Davalos). Into Medusa's fiery love den creep Perseus and his men, cringing at every sound.

Leterrier and his three screenwriters follow master animator Harryhausen's lead and imagine Medusa as a slithery reptilian demon. Technological advances allow her to move quicker than her 1981 incarnation, and that's smart up to a point, but by the time the intrepid Greek decapitates her with a whack of his magic sword, we've decided that Harryhausen's herky-jerky stop-motion Medusa, bobbing and weaving like a mechanical cobra, is creepier after all. Point to Harryhausen.

It gratifies us to note that Clash is the second major release this year to tackle the Perseus myth — the other being the Chris Columbus/Craig Titley/Rick Riordan Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Who could have imagined two expensively produced big-studio films devoted to the same Greek legend, arriving within six weeks of each other? Columbus' version, a contemporary teenage tale overflowing with Olympian mischief, has a pretty good Medusa of its own: Uma Thurman. On the basis of sheer personality, we'll take Uma over Natalia. But Clash's Gemma Arterton, as Io, the protector of Perseus, runs a strong second in the semi-divine beauty derby.

The rest of Clash suffers from the familiar twin curse of production bloat and characterological famine. Giant scorpions, a black Pegasus, angry tidal waves, and Perseus' brave band of Arrgghhh-O-Nauts cavort under the watchful eyes of the gods of silliness — everything they say is unintentionally funny. The dialogue may cause boils. And someone should have stopped Ralph Fiennes from making an ass of himself as Hades, dirt bag king of the underworld. It's never nice to rebel against the gods, but sometimes mortals see it as their duty to be revolting.

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