Monday, November 27, 2017

Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield

Everyone hates the Jinyiwei Imperial Guard (assassins), a.k.a. the Northern Bureau. Nobody better understands why than Shen Lian. He has done things he is not proud and witnessed worse. His two former cronies are currently unaccounted for, so he will have to navigate another murky conspiracy largely on his own in Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Shen Lian does not have many friends, so it really irks him when he loses one to in-fighting with the rival Eastern Bureau agency. It seems they really do not want him investigating the murder of a government official who was responsible for inspecting the Emperor’s dragonboat, right before it sank. The Emperor was rescued just in time, but getting waterlogged did not do his delicate constitution any favors.

Thanks to his many sins, Shen has amassed a small collection of Bei Zai’s paintings, because his Buddhist monastery of choice gives them as gifts in gratitude of large donations, sort of like PBS tote-bags. Unfortunately, Bei Zai also happens to be a dissident painter, known for including sly commentary in her work. Even more inconveniently, she is deeply involved in a conspiracy against the Stephen Bannon-Harry Hopkins-like eunuch Wei Zhongxian, the real oppressive power behind the throne.

Consequently, the Jinyiwei captain is deeply conflicted when he is dispatched to dispatch her, especially when he sees she is played by Yang Mi. Despite his better judgment, he ends up killing his fellow officer instead. Of course, that really lands him in the soup when he learns the creep was Wei’s godson. He will continue to protect her, even when her co-conspirators blackmail him to commit treasonous acts, which he feels rather ambivalent about. Frankly, it is his survival instinct and a possible love for Bei Zai that will drive his decisions.

The first Brotherhood was a solid period action film, but the second is even stronger, ironically because it ditches the brotherhood and focuses on Shen Lian, partly making him out to be a Yojimbo-esque free agent and partly a High Noon-style lone wolf. Still, there are very definitely themes of Esprit De Corps and solidarity, especially with respect to Shen’s complicated relationship with his commander, Lu Wenzhao.

Once again, viewers will enjoy some nifty hack-and-slash action in Blades 2, but the relationships and intrigue really make it dance and sing. In addition to the awkward romance, Shen forges an unlikely alliance with Captain Pei Lun of the Southern Bureau, who was originally assigned to investigate him, which becomes the stuff of wuxia gold.

Returning as Shen, Chen Chang really ups the ante this time around. He still broods like a monster, but he also starts to lose his cool rather spectacularly. He also develops terrific chemistry with Yang Mi and Lei Jiayin as his unlikely allies, Bai Zai and Pei Lun. Zhang Yi is delightfully roguish and Machiavellian as Lu Wenzhao, while Xin Zhilei shows some impressive moves as Ding Baiying, the conspiracy’s liaison to Shen Lian, who is quite lethal with a blade.

Like any good franchise, Blades 2 has a stinger that teases a further sequel. In this case, it promises some rather baffling turn-of-events, but we’ll take it anyway, because the second is so much fun. It manages to be simultaneously tragic and action-packed, as well as cynical and sentimental, like all the finest wuxia films (and you can easily walk into it without having seen the prior film). Enormously satisfying, Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield opens this Friday (12/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.