Jackie Chan could take a few lessons from Jet Li about aging gracefully out of action-superstar status. While Chan is filling his twilight years with trifling children's films, Li is honing his performing skills. A case in point is the "The Warlords," a Chinese battle drama set during the Taiping rebellion of the 1860s. Li carries the film not with brawling but with acting.

Li plays Gen. Pang, a commander who is not bloodthirsty so much as blood-blind. Pang is so ruthlessly pragmatic that he will execute 4,000 unarmed prisoners if strategy requires it. He's not unfeeling. In a Qing Dynasty precursor to post-traumatic battlefield stress, he weeps for the departed. Then he'll plan the next massacre. Hey, he's a warlord.

The film is a tragic brew of brotherhood and betrayal played out among Pang and two bandit leaders (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) with a beautiful femme fatale (Xu Jinglei) providing a dash of romantic intrigue. Pang makes a vow of undying loyalty to his allies, but as the voice-over narration repeatedly reminds us, "Dying is easy, living is hard." With almost every character in a wardrobe of funereal black, a pall of doom is never far away.

"The Warlords" is gorgeous; director Peter Chan finds a ragged beauty in the bleak, grimy bandit camps that rivals the elegant splendor of imperial palaces. His battle scenes are staged on the scale of the Beijing Olympics, yet the violence feels real, not impersonal and epic. Death is harsh, ugly and omnipresent here, as well it might be. China's devastating civil war lasted a decade and took an estimated 20 million lives. The film has the dirty-fingernails realism of a Peckinpah western, and the same remorseless pessimism about the ultimate fate of men who live near death.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186