If it's a movie about The Guillotines, then give me the damned Guillotines! For the uninitiated, The Flying Guillotine was a franchise of films during the good ol' Shaw Brothers martial arts hey days where it's a much feared weapon used to decapitate the heads of exponents unlucky to be in its path, and unskilled to deflect the ugly metal hat with bladed rim and chain. Rumoured to be a weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Yongzheng, it's one of many famed weapons in kungfu flicks that's instantly recognizable, until this monstrosity came along.
Sure, we'd need an upgrade or two. After all, this is the age of digital effects, so the guillotine weapon is now completely CGed with a bit too much information, showing the implausible tech wizardry that goes on inside the weapon, now resembling a sickle-sword in two parts, one that contains the revolving, spinning wheel that hooks onto one's neck, extends a couple more mean looking blades, before a yank of a chain decapitates one's head. Do we get to see the full works? Yes, despite some censored bits, but considered that the best demonstration of the weapon comes in the first ten minutes, that's all about what you can see of a film whose title is the weapon. Bummer.
With no less than having six writers involved, you'd think at least one of them had the sense to make the utilization of the weapon a more frequent point in the film, especially when we have seven characters in a team, all of whom take up fanciful titles like a basketball team, operating like a dedicated SWAT platoon, headed by Leng (Ethan Juan). The story turned out to be convoluted, a classic case of having too many cooks involved in the brewing of the broth, and with desire to help director Andrew Lau concoct an Infernal Affairs equivalent of a martial arts story complete with twists and turns hinged on loyalty, brotherhood, and a whole lot of hidden agendas.
Emperor Yongzheng has the crack Guillotines team set up as a secret underground army of his to wipe dissent amongst the populace, and this continues during the reign of his son Qianlong, who is adamant in embracing modern technology and weaponry, and also to wipe this dark episode of a blot on his dynasty's rule. To do so, he has a sworn group of those whose astrological star signs are aligned to his, whom his father had dispersed through various arms in the government, such as Du (Shawn Yue), an Imperial agent, and even Leng himself. The main antagonist to his dynasty is Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), the head of the rebel Herders gang, who is Han and going around rousing support from the oppressed and disgruntled, and soon enough we have Leng and his Guillotines open the film with a big action sequence that may just be the final entertaining fight you'd see in the movie.
That's because with the embrace of guns and cannons, which boasts a far greater reach that the Guillotines infamous ability to kill within 10 steps (only), Qianlong is also keen to have new toys, and to do so, schemes to justify them while at the same time rid his rule of those who had served him, and his father, well. Opportunity comes when Leng's teammate Musen (Li Yuchun), who is also daughter of the Guillotines chief (played by the Master of the Flying Guillotine legend Jimmy Wang Yu in a non combat role, unlike in Wu Xia) gets kidnapped by Wolf, and during their rescue mission, has Du unceremoniously tagged along their quest.
Fine so far? Great, because everything else that came after is more talk than action. Soon we'd see Leng being more of a brooder than a man of decisive action, as each of the major characters begin to reveal true intentions, centered around what it means to be sworn to loyalty and brotherhood, yet being in a fix when required to perform execute someone else's dirty intent. There's opportunity for gratuitous massacre on screen just to up the body count, as the Guillotines crack team become more caricatures as the narrative moved along, rather than the feared team that operated in the shadows.
There's also a lot of The Last Samurai in this, given the very obvious guns and cannons versus sword fights and primitive weapons employed by the masses, in what would be an emperor's degree to wipe his enemies, that by the time this rolled out you'd know how everything would end, since Qianlong is after all very much one of the longest reigning monarchs in Chinese history, and all fantasy of rebels rewriting that, is zilch. The entire second half of the narrative also had Leng rescued by the enemy Wolf, and brought to see the light on what is the true meaning of peace and harmony, when living amongst those whom he had once sought to silence with his deadly spinning wheel at the drop of the hat through a decree by the courts.
Ethan Juan probably had it in his contract to shed a lot of tears and bawl like a crybaby in this one, while Shawn Yue, with Infernal Affairs tucked under his belt, performs in a similar capacity, albeit this time in a medieval get up. Huang Xiaoming's role was the most curious in the film, being almost messiah like, the chosen one seeking a way to lead his people out of misery, preaching his brand of politics and revolt through the many pockets of Han community still scattered around, and predicting his own untimely demise in what would be a necessary sacrifice he had foretold to bring about reconciliation. Even his make up and costuming looks traditionally messiah-like, although he held his own when non-violence doesn't seem to sway ideals.
It's probably about time that martial arts films inspired by those of old, stick to what made them genre in the first place. Nobody's quibbling if there's a solid story, but in trying to be intellectual and artificially raising philosophical examination, The Guillotines becomes a tired exercise attempting too hard to achieve something more cerebral, forgetting its entertainment aspect, and what had made its namesake famous in the first place, akin to the movie's Qianlong in attempting to wipe out what is remarkably cheesy in its mythos after having to ride on the goodwill of the franchise's coattails to have this made.