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HONG KONG — After playing fast and loose with literature and history in “Three Kingdoms — Resurrection of the Dragon,” Daniel Lee’s “14 Blades” is more grounded in the traditions of Hong Kong swordplay films. The subject is familiar to fans of this genre — the mysterious Ming Dynasty secret service and one renegade member’s fate. Its stylishly retro touch and flashy sets and stunts makes a nice package for Asian release and action-specialist DVD labels.
The prologue gives chilling explanation of Jingyiwei, or Brocade Guards, formed in the Ming Dynasty as the Emperor’s personal henchmen. Its chief, Qinglong (Donnie Yen), is framed by Head Eunuch Jia in a conspiracy to steal the Imperial Seal and usurp the throne. Hounded by his brethren, led by ruthless junior Xuan Wu (Qi Yu Wu), Qinglong goes on the run and hires civilian guards to escort him to the border. On the way, he gets intimate with Qiao Hua (Vicky Zhao), a guard whom he takes hostage, and bonds with Judge (Chun Wu) and his bandit gang. For honor’s sake, he faces down Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), the exotic striptease assassin.
Drawing on the prowess of Donnie Yen, the first 35 minutes of gimmick-free martial arts revives the sinewy action aesthetics of ’70s Shaw Brothers classics. The swarthy, under-lit interiors, ornate but black or navy costumes and grainy, yellowish image texture evoke a secretive, ominous atmosphere that channels the political intrigue in King Hu’s works. Supporting roles by ’80s action heavyweights Sammo Hung, Wu Ma and Chu Tiet Wo enhance the nostalgic flavor.
The cat-and-mouse chase begins to lose its grip as the conspiracy gets too convoluted and gratuitous attempts to supplement direct combat with technical gimmicks like explosions and Western firearms. The switch to a desert location and the appearance of boy band idol Wu’s cartoon-like Judge, in costumes copied from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” threatens to dispel the menacing air and degenerate into a silly chow-mien Western.
It would have ended a mediocre film if not for the inventively designed and utilized weaponry (especially the titular 14 blades with different functions) — a cool homage to action master Chang Cheh’s Freundian, fetishistic use of weapons.
A duel between Xuan Wu and two bare-chested Jinyiwei who brandish giant, rectangular blades while being chained to posts, is shot with stark, savage manliness. Conversely, the mirage effect of Tuo Tuo’s undressing her seven-layered robe and swinging her snake-like whip evokes risque femininity.
The backbone of the story is Qinglong’s tragedy of growing up with no individual identity except as a body weapon, exacerbated by his sense of betrayal by the organization that paradoxically endowed him with a sense of honor. This is handled convincingly both by Lee’s consistent characterization, and Yen’s solemn performance. Seldom expressive in his acting, Yen’s stiff and steely demeanor actually works to his role’s favor. The love interest with Qiaohua is lame, especially with Zhao sleepwalking through another typecast role as playful, tomboyish heroine.
Opened: Hong Kong, Feb. 11
Production: Visualizer Film Prods., Shanghai Film Group Corporation, Desen International Media Co Ltd.
Cast: Donnie Yen, Vicky Zhao, Kate Tsui, Chun Woo, Qi Yu Wu
Director-screenwriter-production designer: Daniel Lee
Screenwriter: Abe Kwong
Producer: Susanna Tsang
Director of photography: Tong Cheung Tung Leung
Music: Henry Lai
Sales: Panasia Films Limited (Hong Kong distribution)
No rating, 113 minutes
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