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The Guillotines
The Guillotines

Ethan Ruan prepares to decapitate in The Guillotines.
Chinese: 血滴子  
Year: 2012  
Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  
Producer: Peter Chan Ho-Sun, Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Writer: Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun, Joyce Chan Ka-Yi, Aubrey Lam Oi-Wah, Philip Lui Koon-Nam, Guo Jun-Li, Chit Ka-Kei
Action: Lee Tat-Chiu
Cast: Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Ruan, Li Yuchun, Shawn Yue, Jing Boran, Wen Zhang, Jimmy Wang Yu, King Shih-Chieh, Wang Luodan, Zhou Yiwei, Pubajia, Gao Tian, Li Meng, Guo Peng, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
The Skinny: Gritty reworking of the classic 1975 Shaw Brothers actioner capsizes under its own amibitions. Despite a great production and good acting, The Guillotines can't convince that it means as much as it thinks it does. The worst part: very little action featuring the guillotine weapon – flying or otherwise.
by Kozo:

Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines features a Qing Dynasty team of assassins called The Guillotines, but not much of the actual flying guillotine weapon. Seriously, Andrew Lau? In a disappointing move, this update of the 1975 Shaw Brothers classic The Flying Guillotine is mostly nostalgia-through-concept, with little use of the iconic weapon and not much bloodletting. The flying guillotine does get an upgrade: it’s now a CGI-enhanced hand scythe with retractable blades and apparent GPS homing capability. In the opening scene, the Guillotines corner rebel leader Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), using their nifty guillotines to decapitate Wolf’s comrades and nearly him. The opening is an over-directed CGI orgy but at least it promises some fun. Also, the CGI-enhanced guillotine weapons are ridiculously cool – if the Guillotines decapitated all their foes in similar fashion the film would get an immediate pass. Hong Kong Cinema fans can be easy to please.

Unfortunately, pleasing the audience does not seem to be a priority here. Plot first: after the flashy opening, Wolf is imprisoned and reveals to Guillotines field leader Leng (Ethan Ruan) that he “knows” him from personal visions. Wolf believes that Leng is fated to kill him – and hey, that makes sense because Wolf is a rebel and Leng is a government assassin. Despite this apparent date with destiny, Wolf escapes execution and kidnaps female Guillotine member Musen (Li Yuchun), before hightailing it to the wilderness. At the behest of the Qianlong Emperor (Wen Zhang), the Guillotines pursue along with palace official Haidu (Shawn Yue), whose high-ranking position doesn’t sit well with the rough-and-ready Guillotines. Haidu looks down on the Guillotines members because they’re uneducated lower class ruffians who are considered expendable assets by the Emperor.

However, Haidu is much more charitable towards Leng because, unbeknownst to the rest of the Guillotines, they share a private bond of brotherhood with the Qianlong Emperor, and grew up alongside him as kids. Haidu wants Leng to quit the Guillotines to work in the palace, but Leng is conflicted. As detailed in male bonding montages, the Guillotines get along famously and Leng hesitates to leave his pals to return to his secret brotherhood with Haidu and Qianlong. Complicating matters, Leng belongs to yet another brotherhood: he’s actually a Han Chinese and a lower-class citizen in the Manchu-run Qing Dynasty. Leng may work for the government, but this is a government that oppresses his people. Wolf uses this dynamic – not to mention some sweaty, manly gazes – to sway Leng into questioning his loyalties even further. Meanwhile, the Qianlong Emperor makes a decisive move. Unfortunately, said move may not mean good things for Wolf or the Guillotines.

The Guillotines has a potent setup, mixing history, politics, nationalism and solid if farfetched character details. Leng’s conflict is easily identified – it’s really up to the filmmakers to sell his internal struggle and ultimate decisions. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do a poor job of convincing at anything besides their technical prowess. The Guillotines looks great, with gritty art direction and cinematography that effectively spotlights the film’s dusty rural settings. True to Andrew Lau form, there’s flashy MTV technique to spare; slow motion and handheld camera work make this a stylish affair, though the style is ill-fitting to 3D projection (the film was post-converted from 2D). Andrew Lau and crew know how to put together a quality-seeming product, but the result is superficial. The Guillotines offers portentous details but handles them unconvincingly. This is a film that takes itself too seriously when it should be having more fun.

A lot of men cry in The Guillotines, but the tears aren’t earned. The brotherhood is mostly nominal, with Leng’s close relationships with the Guillotines and Haidu coming off only as appointed script details. Despite its labored setup, Leng’s link to Wolf is more convincing, in large part because Huang Xiaoming shares better chemistry with Ethan Ruan than Shawn Yue does. The Guillotines are barely discernible from one another, making them difficult to care about. Other than Jing Boran, who plays the mouthiest Guillotine, the rest are handsome or rough-looking meatheads. If this were a Shaw Brothers film, the Guillotines would be differentiated by their fighting skills but there’s little fighting. Other than minor skirmishes the action scenes are usually one-sided assaults, and it’s not exciting to see one group mow down another without a struggle. It can be sad or tragic, but not when used repeatedly and with the same side always winning.

Also, the story doesn’t progress organically and many details are sloppy or illogical. Characters are shot by multiple guns but surrounding extras go unscathed. People run unnecessarily to their deaths, characters just show up whenever the story requires it, and too much exposition is handled via flashback. The film also trots out religious imagery – a snake here, a hailstorm there – to support the messianic countenance of Wolf, who with his beard and robes does resemble Jesus. But the Christ references are just blatant spoon-fed symbolism. Subtlety, thy name is neither Andrew Lau nor his committee of six screenwriters. Lau also serves up another obvious parallel: he reuses a music theme from his Young and Dangerous movies to reinforce the film’s brotherhood. Unfortunately, the film’s brotherhood is unconvincing and is only given weight with pandering details like reusing music from a better film. This is the tail wagging the dog.

The lack of memorable action is doubly disappointing because this is a reworking of an action movie that gained its notoriety from its outlandish titular weapon. Remaking The Flying Guillotines in this manner is like remaking The Road Warrior without any big car chase or battle sequences. The filmmakers do reference their roots with an appearance by Jimmy Wang Yu (who appeared in One-Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine, not The Flying Guillotines), who adds veteran presence to the solid young cast, all of whom acquit themselves well. The problem here is in concept and execution. Given the themes and the final twists, Andrew Lau and company appear to be making their version of Hero, (i.e., a martial arts film with grander ideas about the use and responsibility of power). Unfortunately, Andrew Lau is not Zhang Yimou, and that difference is more than enough to doom The Guillotines’s ambitions. (Kozo, 12/2012)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mega Star (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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