Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Guillotines: Heads Up

Widely feared for their decapitation weapons, the Guillotines consider themselves the Emperor’s A-team for sensitive mission.  Unfortunately, they find out they are simply expendable crewmen in Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Wolf is the ironically named leader of the rebellious shepherd gang, who seems to think his fate is connected to that of Leng, the Guillotines’ trusted squad leader.  With Wolf imprisoned and scheduled for execution, Leng pays little heed to his captive’s mumbo jumbo.  Unfortunately, a daring rescue operation frees Wolf, in the process taking prisoner Musen, their comrade and daughter of their revered commander.

Obviously, this is a black eye for the Guillotines, but it gets worse.  The emperor has decided to sacrifice the Guillotines on an ostensive clean-up mission.  As it happens, Leng is well acquainted with the man charged with his team’s destruction.  He and Agent Du were recruited as young children to faithfully serve the emperor.  While Du remains unswervingly committed to the royal sovereign, Leng feels a stronger kinship with his team.  Ironically, he finds temporary shelter with his old nemesis, Wolf.

Considering the wicked Krull like weapons sported by the Guillotines, the pseudo-Shaw Brothers remake is surprisingly stingy with the martial arts throwdowns.  Frustratingly, most of the action consists of large set piece massacres of Wolf’s ragtag contingent, which are really not much fun at all.

Indeed, The Guillotines follows in a long line of historical dramas that not so subtly suggest a strong centralizing authority is in the national interest because it provides stability.  Of course, this is an attractive argument if you happen to be part of that centralized power structure.  Still, the film incorporates the traditional Han and Manchu conflict in intriguing ways.

As Leng and Du, Ethan Juan and Shawn Yue develop a nice Cain-and-Abel tension, while Li Yuchun convincingly renders Musen’s awakening of conscience.  In contrast, the rest of the Guillotines, though introduced individually in the cool credit sequence, are not meaningfully delineated as characters.

Frankly, there are just too many scenes of terrified peasants fleeing the Imperial war machine, followed-up with precious little payoff.  It is a quality period production, but there is too much message and not enough old school entertainment.  A disappointment for martial arts fans, The Guillotines opens this Friday (6/14) in New York at the IFC Center.