Film Review: The Guillotines

Politics and technology doom the Emperor's private army in 18th-century China.

Ambitious but muddled, The Guillotines uses a war between Emperor Qianlong's Manchu army and the Han people as the setting for a complicated story of loyalty and betrayal among elite assassins. Based very loosely on 1975 Hong Kong adventure film The Flying Guillotine, this movie doesn't have enough action to attract martial-arts fans. Its narrative isn't likely to draw anyone else either.

The basic premise is sturdy enough. The Emperor (Wen Zhang) has assembled highly trained soldiers, known as the Guillotines for their trademark device, a whirling metal disk that decapitates their enemies. Led by Leng (Ethan Juan), the fighters are ordered to defeat the Herders, Han terrorists under the command of Wolf (Huang Xiaoming).

The chase leads deep into Han territory, where the Guillotines, disguised as tea merchants, come face-to-face with the effects of the Emperor's policies. Leng, accompanied by his childhood friend Haidu (Shawn Yue), uncovers secrets about their past, learning that they were both Han orphans abducted into the Emperor's court.

As Leng closes in on Wolf, Haidu and Green Army commander Jiang (King Shih-Chieh) enact cruel reprisals against the Han. And with the arrival of the Emperor's new soldiers, armed with firearms, Leng realizes that he and the Guillotines have become targets along with the Han. Aligning the Guillotines with Wolf may be their only chance of survival.

Director Andrew Lau replaced the original Guillotines director after the production shut down over script problems. Presumably he is responsible for the movie's ponderous tone and overwrought emotions. For all its intimations of The Seven Samurai, The Guillotines is soppy to the point of hysteria.

The assassins, supposedly all hardened killers, cry a lot, and even the Emperor gets teary-eyed when Leng and Haidu hurl recriminations at each other. When one Guillotine is wounded, it takes four camera angles to get him down to the ground. None of the leads has the skill or training to perform Lee Tai-chiu's stunts, so the action is a blur of quick edits and CGI.

The performances are overbearing, apart from the grimly efficient Shawn Yue. Even the great Jimmy Wang Yu is reduced to glum speeches and stony expressions.

By Western standards this is dreary stuff, dripping with saliva and tears. Imagine a Wild Bunch where the mercenaries sulk in silence when they're not screaming at the heavens.

Even in its glory days, Hong Kong cinema had its share of clunkers—bloated, interminable costume melodramas with overblown sentiments and miniscule plots. You can add The Guillotines to that list.