Period actioners can be a very tough vehicle to sell, especially when they’re loaded with characters. Typically, the bigger the cast the longer the film has to be in order to have enough time for (a) establishing everyone’s identity, (b) giving each notable the necessary screen time to establish presence, and (c) allowing each of the principles to allow their respective thematic functions to be fulfilled. One fine example of this is THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (an American retread of the Japanese 1954 original SEVEN SAMURAI): each character gets an introduction respective of the role he’ll play in the entire affair, and each character is given ample opportunity to develop a personality and some impactful ‘conclusion’ to his participation in it.
To the contrary, THE GUILLOTINES kinda/sorta tinkers in similar territory, but director Andrew Lau (whose career proves he knows better) traffics in all the wrong directorial choices.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
At the height of the Qing Dynasty, THE GUILLOTINES were a secret brotherhood of royal assassins empowered by the Emperor to do his dark deeds: crush whatever rebellion may start in its tracks. They’re outfitted with swords of the same name – flexible blades of steel that launch deadly rings with the power to decapitate their victims by the pull of a trigger – and, in using them, this medieval ‘Injustice League’ become an unstoppable force leaving only fear in their wake. However, a villager known as Wolf (played by Xiaoming Huang) will prove their greatest challenge, forcing the team to take to the countryside in pursuit alongside an evil general who seeks only to see THE GUILLOTINES vanquished to history once and for all.
Usually, this kind of cinematic magic is the stuff I find myself curiously drawn to. You’ve got a team of warriors once committed to a brand of justice only now beginning to question the choices they’ve made throughout the years. You’ve got an idyllic period of history wherein mankind is starting to deal with larger issues of nobility and restraint. Plus, you’ve got some fisticuffs and chases and swordplay to help propel the story forward. Sadly, I hate to report that THE GUILLOTINES – with a script by no less than six contributors – feeling like a mash-up of one undeserved action piece after another.
Seriously, the film felt uneven from the get go with director Lau stringing along a big opening action showdown with edits coming so fast and so furious that it was nearly impossible to see much less figure out what was happening. When a film only looks pretty in its opening scenes and no single character is given suitable opportunity to become something other than flickers of light and shadow on the screen, it becomes clear just how good looks can be deceiving.
And the rest of the film really gets no better. There is some wonderfully John Ford style cinematography to the vast countryside that looks marvelous, but it’s all laid out with no reason to care about it and (worse) no prompting to care about the folks who live in it. The plot is plagued by a weird “I have a dream” speech that ends in death (hello, Mr. Foreshadowing), and the story ends up relying so heavily on flashbacks to establish purpose that I began to wonder if it all shouldn’t have begun in a prequel of some sort. In good period pieces, the action sequences evolve from the plot, but THE GUILLOTINES clearly have reversed those roles, with the storytellers believing that their paper thin idea is actually thick enough to justify the action. Truth is: it isn’t.
The audience never cares about the men, or at least they’re not encouraged to until the 1:23:00 mark when the story is finally granted some modest emotional resonance. Too little too late for this critic.
THE GUILLOTINES (aka “Xue di zi”) (2012) is produced by Media Asia Arts, Polyface Entertainment, Stellar Mega Films, and We Pictures. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA. As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds mostly solid, though it’s replete with some curiously way-too-fast editing choices that makes me believe a vastly longer cut probably exists somewhere (a director’s cut?). For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Mandarin-spoken-language release, and there’s either an English-dubbing track available or English subtitles. Lastly, there’s a brief ‘making of’ feature and some cast and crew interviews – along with the theatrical trailer – for those inclined; I wasn’t.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. There’s a fair amount of flash and sizzle incorporated into THE GUILLOTINES’ visual tapestry, but there isn’t enough narrative thread to pull it all together, and, yes, that’s a h-u-g-e disappointment. One of the chief considerations in telling any story is that there be some relatable character at the center of it – someone to root for, someone to care about – but this splashy CGI-heavy period actioner has little heart except for the last reel. The problem, then, becomes caring too little too late for all of it to do little more than end.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD copy of THE GUILLOTINES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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