It's about time Donnie Yen made an impact yet again in the fantasy wuxia-pian genre, given the rather recent dismal films with Painted Skin (where he only had a supporting role), An Empress and the Warriors, and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords back in 2005. Most of us went ballistic with his more modern action roles ranging from SPL to Ip Man, and his 14 Blades character of Qing Long (Green Dragon, thanks to those mean looking tattoos adorned all over his upper torso) here looks quite set to become yet another memorable role similar to his morally ambiguous one in Bodyguards and Assassins.
Here, Yen's Qing Long is the General-in-chief bodyguard to, and assassin for a Ming Dynasty king, who had set up the Jin Yi Wei (the Mandarin title), or the Brocaded Robe Guards, a special army known for its dogmatic principles in fulfilling mission objectives, whose loyalty is to the king only, and are at his beck and call to do just about anything the king commands. That of course leaves room for evil eunuchs to manipulate, especially when they can get the king easily distracted with wine, song and plenty of nubile women.
The first few minutes of the film introduces us to the background of Qing Long and his army of bodyguards and assassins, the evil that lurks within the royal family and palace from eunuchs to an exiled prince (an extremely short cameo by Sammo Hung), and of course, the fabled 14 Blades. Unfortunately, we are told of the uniqueness and names of each blade, but never see all of them in action, coupled by the fact that they look quite generic. Only Qing Long is assigned this utility box containing the swords and lugs it everywhere ala El Mariachi's guitar case, and at his will can throw up the appropriate weapon to battle adversaries, including a set of grappling hooks!
Writer-director Daniel Lee managed to create a film consisting of a successful amalgamation of wuxia-pian elements, with iconic fight action sequences set in tea houses, desert duels, forest brawls with abandoned temples and exotic cities enhanced by CG to play host to a film complete with double crosses, a prized possession that everyone is after, and had time to sneak in unrequited romance. In some ways the film plays out like a Cowboy Western with its one man sheriff and an escort agency up against various bands of outlaws in endless desert filled land, with that theme of hope that they'll make it unscathed against changing odds, save the day and to ride off into the sunset with the damsel.
The story though gave way at the midway mark, where it clearly became nothing more than a stringing together of battles and one on one duels, which thankfully were still exciting to sit through, with none of the fast cut edits or crazy closeups that will make you cringe. With the introduction of Wu Chun as Judge, the leader of a brigade of bandits who has this cool boomerang double blade, and Kate Tsui in a role where she only grunts as loud as Maria Sharapova hitting a return volley, ample time got dedicated for one to mirror QIng Long's transformation and road to redemption, while the other, well, just serves to grunt a lot, in a get up that looks inspired by Medusa, and armed with a serpent sword-like-whip, and powers of CG stealth.
But underneath the fights, the flimsy storyline and gorgeous costumes, 14 Blades turns out to have an incredibly strong romance instead, with Vicky Zhao (her umpteenth period role straight) starring as Qiao Hua, daughter of the Justice Escort agency founder (played by veteran Wu Ma), enamoured by the manliness of the legendary leader of the Jin Yi Wei, since she grew up on fairy tales and harbouring the hopes that a fabled swordsman would one day save society from its evils. In a way her Qiao Hua exhibits the Stockholm Syndrome, being held captive against her wishes, but slowly being drawn romantically to her captive, even endangering herself (in a scene to provide comic relief) by willingly becoming his aide and pawn.
It's far from being the perfect film, especially with unbelievably incoherent flashbacks and the going overboard with explosions (of the RPG type), but Donnie Yen once again shows that when it comes to the fisticuffs, he still has a lot to offer, despite the story's potential that had it go off the blocks strongly, only to fizzle out before the end in a case of severe narrative burn-out.