16:00 - 1st July 2014, by David West

The Guillotines

During the reign of the Qing Emperor Qian Long, the Han Chinese are oppressed by the Manchus that rule the country. To silence dissent, the Emperor employs an elite group of assassins called The Guillotines, whose speciality is decapitating their targets with their flying weapons. The squad captures a rebel leader called Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), but on the day he is supposed to be executed, their opposer escapes and takes one of the Guillotines, Musen (Li Yuchun), as a hostage. The others set out to free their colleague, led by Field Commander Leng (Ethan Juan) and accompanied by a member of the Imperial Court, Haidu (Shawn Yue), unaware that the Emperor has decided that the Guillotines' usefulness is at an end.

Produced by Peter Chan, who gave us The Warlords and Protégé, and with Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) directing, The Guillotines ought to be a corker. But with six different people credited for the screenplay, the story is an unfocused mess, while Lau's golden touch behind the camera has turned to lead. The script touches on issues of racism in the conflict between the ruling Manchus and the majority Han Chinese, but the handling of the topic is muddled. The vast majority of the Manchu characters are portrayed as evil brutes but then The Guillotines are of Manchu descent and the viewer is supposed to care about their fate. However, their personalities are so underdeveloped that they make no emotional impression.

As Haidu, actor Shawn Yue has two expressions - a steel-eyed glare and a wide-eyed glare - while as Leng, Ethan Juan alternates between looking pained and merely uncomfortable. Huang Xiaoming goes for Messianic as the rebel leader Wolf, but the script can't make up its mind what he wants. This is, perhaps, another testament to the number of writers involved. Is Wolf seeking the violent overthrow of the Qing, or does he just want to live in peace? It changes from one scene to the next.

The film is shot and edited in the Michael Bay, ADHD style. The camera never sits still, even though all that distracting movement reveals nothing, and the editing refuses to hold on any angle for more than a few seconds. Despite the subject concerning a squad of elite assassins, action scenes are few, and thoroughly underwhelming when they do occur. To make matters worse, the Guillotines actually seem hopelessly incompetent in battle, rather unlike the lethal assassins introduced in the opening titles. One plot element revolves around how martial arts are becoming obsolete in the age of firearms, although this was handled with greater eloquence by Lau Kar-Leung in Legendary Weapons Of Kung Fu in 1982.

Production values are a mixed lot. The scenery and costumes look impressive, even if the rebels' village is a huge cliché of a pastoral utopia complete with cute kids tugging on the heartstrings, but the CGI used in the battles is sadly unconvincing. The drama is occasionally involving but, ultimately, quite blunt.

Sadly, The Guillotines is not worth losing your head over.
SCORE: 2.5/5
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