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14 Blades (2010, China)

24/09/2011

Director: Daniel Lee       Starring: Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Chun Wu, Sammo Hung

Donnie Yen is a martial arts star who I reckon has been largely overlooked by Western audiences, at least until recently, never really receiving the same praise and adulation as the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li despite, in my opinion, of being in their league when it comes to kung fu action. With a career spanning more than twenty five years he really does deserve more recognition and to be fair, since the success of the Ip Man movies where he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun Grandmaster, he does seem to be finally getting noticed, something his disappointing supporting roles in sub-standard Western fare like Blade II and Highlander: Endgame resolutely failed to achieve. I don’t know if I would have looked twice at 14 Blades had he not been cast in the lead role.

In 14 Blades he plays Qinlong, the commander of the elite bodyguards of the Emperor known as the Jinyiwei. Sent on a secret mission to retrieve an Imperial treasure from a suspected traitor he is betrayed by a scheming Imperial advisor Jia who has plotted to seize control of the Imperial Court with a little bit of help from traitor in exile Prince Qing (Sammo Hung). When Jia’s men fail to kill Qinlong he finds himself topping the most wanted list and is forced to rally a rag tag bunch of followers in order to defeat Jia and restore the Emperor’s command, lest the kingdom succumb to the cruelty of the usurpers.

14 Blades is a highly stylised film (in the vein of Zack Snyder’s 300) with much of the action sequences playing out in limited colour pallettes with computer enhanced imagery adding a touch of fantasy to the swordplay. This isn’t the more or less realistic kung fu on show in Ip Man or the relatively straightforward brawling of Flashpoint. Blade tips are traced in the air with glowing ribbons, Tuo Tuo (the female assassin sent to dispatch Qinglong) shimmers through the air, wraithlike, seemingly possessed of supernatural powers. There’s a ton of wire work. Most peculiar of all is the presence of the case which holds the fourteen blades of the title, a peculiar mechanical box of tricks that serves as a sort of utility belt to Qinglong. It becomes clear very early on that the film owes a bigger debt to anime and comic books than it does traditional kung fu cinema.

That isn’t to say the fight scenes aren’t enjoyable. There’s a certain overwrought aspect to them that makes them a lot of fun (plus watching Donnie Yen fight is always entertaining) especially the scene where a treacherous officer in the Jinyiwei attempts to execute two other members of the order who remain loyal to Qinglong post betrayal. It’s all furniture smashing, building collapsing stuff with blades slicing through walls and beams like they aren’t even there before, eventually, anime-style, said beams ‘realise’ they’ve been cut and slide in two. It is fair to say though that the more conventional battles are the more satisfying, the novelty of the slow motion, post Matrix sword fights wearing off eventually.

When the battles aren’t raging the film comes off as a tribute to Sergio Leone, due in part to the desert setting (an unusual choice in a kung fu movie and a side of China not seen often enough on film if you ask me) but also to the plot as Qinglong is forced to throw his lot in with the people he meets on the road. The most important of these is love interest Qiao Hua (the stunning Wei Zhao) a feisty hostage-turned-helper who makes up for a lack of combat skills with plenty of attitude and more than a little cunning. Zhao’s is probably the best performance in the film. Qinglong seems like a bit of a departure for Yen, his stoicism and single mindedness suppressing the charisma he normally brings to his work but he certainly looks the part and is convincing enough in the role, even if it does feel like a little bit of a waste of his talents.

I think if 14 Blades lacks something it’s subtlety. Yes, it’s enjoyable enough in its own right. It quickly dispenses with the notion that it’s pseudo-historical setting has much basis in reality (the Jinyiwei were real as was the Ming Dynasty during which the film is set but the history lesson, thankfully, ends there) and shows its true colours, those of a fantasy kung fu epic, quite early on. For me personally, all the mechanical trickery, blade launching devices, multiple shot crossbows and similar elements were a bit distracting and a little unnecessary but I do tend to prefer more pared down, authentic combat action. Some of the digital effects exhibited in the fight scenes are actually pretty cool (especially in Tuo Tuo’s duels) but they often feel a little over cooked and far too derivative of 300 to be really striking. Its heart’s in the right place though, which counts for a lot and you could certainly do a lot worse. If you are a fan of fantasy tinged kung fu or live action Manga titles this will be right up your alley though and well worth a look.

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