Though questionable as a Jet Li classic, The Warlords is currently available on Netflix and thus provides a readily available movie review. This film is much unlike Li's other work, only sparingly displaying his skills as a martial artist. It does, however, present an interesting tale of Chinese history, but might require supplemental contextual understanding to be fully appreciated.
What was particularly interesting to me about this film was the narrative that I thought it was presenting but then appeared to alter later in the story. Particularly after the attempted recruitment of the recovering villagers and the appeal by Pang to the imperial army officers (who appeared to be old men who had never seen combat themselves), I was prepared for a war story told from the perspective of those who populate army ranks: the poor and lower classes who have no better options. We immediately sympathize with them, as they are only trying to eek out a meager agricultural living in the Chinese countryside and have nothing to do with the wars between the Ming Dynasty and the rebels. They are put in an unenviable situation, where by joining the army they might prevent further devastation to their village by rebels, but are subservient to a political class that has done no apparent thing to earn their allegiance (other than conquering other peoples, taking their stuff, and being able to offer these villagers protection. They are like a mafia on a large scale).
Thus, the blood pact brothers' effort, along with other villagers, to defeat the Taiping rebels in order to bring lasting peace seems noble, but we still have at the back of our minds that though their early victories seem empowering (if not downright glorious, thus leading me to question the "war is hell and fought by the poor for the benefit of the rich"narrative), they remain subservient to the imperial political classes no matter what. Thus, any military victory they secure tastes bittersweet to the audience and we are not fully able to partake in them. (Furthermore, we are not informed of the grievance of the Taiping rebels, which may as well be large and justified considering the costs they are willing to bear to fight the empire.)
In the end, what I thought would be an inspiring tale of common men managing to beat the system and not be relegated to fodder for the empire, turned out to be a story that is not unfamiliar to us today; that is, warfare waged by pawns at the behest of the powerful.
P.S. But, if it was historically accurate, of which I have my doubts, then the result is unsurprising. But it makes me wonder what significance this story holds in Chinese folklore and whether the revolutionary undertones of the film that I perceived are part of that folklore.