Blood, sweat and tears flow in this grimy action-adventure-cum-male-melodrama, which features a Pan-Asian superstar trifecta doing their best to emphatically outgrimace each other. Jet Li is General Pang, who crawls up from under a mountain of dead soldiers in a blatantly Kurosawa-like opening, right down to the actor’s paunchy resemblance to Toshiro Mifune. After some soul-searchy wandering, he meets Er Hu (Lau), a bandit lording over a remote village with his second-in-command, Wu Yang (Kaneshiro). The trio soon become blood-brother soldiers, who win the favor of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s war council and then fight their way across 19th-century China.
The film lurches through narrative incidents: Battle scenes, political intrigue and a ticking-time-bomb love triangle are all pitched at the level of mundane competence and rarely get the blood racing. (This stateside version has been shorn of 16 minutes; reports vary as to the original cut’s superiority.) There’s still an involuntary kick to seeing Li in action, watching Lau emote and basking in Kaneshiro’s cocksure good looks. Each one seems to be trading on a past glory or two, but at least they make the lip-quivering bathos and moonstruck machismo go down with relative ease.—Keith Uhlich
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