Some 1200 years BC, Genghis Khan founded and ruled the Mongol Empire, which became the largest Empire in history, besting Alexander The Great's conquering of much of the known earth in his time. Often regarded as the founding father of Mongolia, Khan's legacy left China under the rule of his grandson, Kublai Khan, during the Yuan Dynasty. Generally mistreating the Chinese, a revolt led to the ultimate collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan reign, and the succession of the True Chinese Ming Dynasty, which went on to become acclaimed as one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in history. Although it was not without corruption, and is often regarded as the starting point for the Capitalist problems of later years, it was nonetheless a high point in Chinese History.
During this period the ruling Emperors established an elite personal bodyguard unit - a sort of Secret Service - called the Jinyi Wei. Soon the duties of these highly skilled warriors extended beyond just protection and into espionage - initially just spying, and then with orders to assassinate. They were authorised to prosecute those deemed to be 'enemies of the state', granted full autonomy to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture and execute without due process or lawful trial. But in the latter days of the Ming Dynasty, as the Empire grew, so did the Jinyi Wei, often being seconded to the Eunuchs (yes, of the castrated variety), who were increasingly powerful people, many of whom were corrupt and conspired to usurp their own Emperor. To this end, the Eunuchs often sought to employ the above-the-law Jinyi Wei to do their dirty work.
14 Blades (although the original title actually translates into Jinyi Wei) follows the plight of Commander Qingjong, the highest trained member of the Jinyi Wei, whose skills have left him honoured with carrying the prized 14 blades, an assortment of weapons housed in an elaborate case, which can be used to torture and kill foes. On orders from a corrupt Eunuch, who happens to be in league with an exiled Prince who is hoping to usurp the Emperor, Qingjong receives faked Imperial orders to retrieve a list of traitors from a key politician. After killing his way to the package, he discovers that he has actually been tricked into stealing the Imperial seal which, in the wrong hands, could lead to the loss of many thousands of lives. Betrayed by one of his own men, he barely escapes with his life. Determined to avenge his fallen comrades and complete his true mission, he joins forces with a headstrong woman and her father's postal worker group, as well as a bunch of bandits looking for treasure. With a deadly assassin sent to eliminate him, and facing a whole Army of soldiers who have been dispatched by the corrupt men masterminding this plot, it is up to Quinjong to retrieve the stolen Imperial seal and preserve the throne.
Donnie Yen has always deserved a prime place as a martial arts action star, but it has taken well over a decade for him to achieve his current status as such. In the interim period he has excelled in scene-stealing supporting roles in the likes of the Jet Li films Hero and Once Upon a Time in China 2, and even made a failed attempt at success in Hollywood, popping up in both Blade 2 and Shanghai Knights. But after a trifecta of resoundingly good films: the period wuxia actioner Seven Swords, the cop thriller SPL and IP Man, the historical martial arts movie about Bruce Lee's mentor, Yen has finally become the successor to Jet Li that he was always destined to be. After another scene-stealing supporting role in the ensemble effort, Bodyguards and Assassins, just last year, and with Ip Man 2 hitting the shelves next month, the martial arts superstar appears to very much be at the peak of his career.
And 14 Blades goes to show just how far he has come, this being his first decent solo-driven wuxia escapade; an enjoyable, occasionally grounded, sometimes over-the-top, adventure. Although the story has some plausibility within the realms of actual history - the Ming Dynasty was plagued by corrupt Eunichs who attempted to usurp the Imperial reign, and consequently used these elite soldiers to do their political assassinations - this is merely a solid basis for a trademark Crouching Tiger / Hero-style movie; so expect plenty of wire-work, elaborate swordplay and martial arts moves that defy the laws of physics. Yen gets enough of a character arc to justify the two-hour runtime, is given some room to show the more subtle nuances to his acting skills, whilst still playing to his strengths as a stoic, super-cool, kick-ass warrior.
There is also a nicely developed, romantically-infused, relationship between his character and the village daughter, betrothed to an unfaithful, uncaring husband, and confused when all that she aspires for in a partner, is revealed to be present within Yen's conflicted Imperial assassin. Mulan star Vicki Zhao joins the party in this role, although it further cements my suspicion that she is a bit of a one-trick-pony when it comes to portraying romantically-involved but strong-minded woman: she does shy and repressed quite well, but has perfected that 'rabbit-in-the-headlights' look to such a degree that she appears to show little else in this regard. Still, it's all the character requires of her here, and she makes for a decent enough counterpart to Yen's courageous antihero.
Supporting them we get an assortment of actors playing parts which appear to be chosen based more on looks than capabilities. Taiwan boy band sensation Chun Wu plays the rebel leader, Judge, and is one half of an aesthetic but ineffective duel casting choice, the other being Kate Tsui. Sure she may have won Miss Hong Kong 2004, but choosing her as the villain's main enforced - the assassin sent to stop Qingjong and ensure that the seal gets to the hands of her corrupt employers - was a bad decision. Her fight sequences (and she is involved in almost half of the fight scenes in the movie) are plagued by terrible CGI work and unconvincing martial arts moves, as well as a weapon-of-choice that is so effects-enhanced that there is no threat or substance to her moves and blows. It's a shame, because I'm sure the Producers were hoping Kate Tsui would be the new Zhang Ziyi, but she just does not pull it off. However the worst travesty is Sammo Hung who, like the others, appears to have been cast based on appearance alone. His miniscule, irrelevant cameo as the exiled Prince who is seeking to take the throne is so unsubstantial that you wonder whether this is the same fast-and-powerful martial arts master who has matured in some nice little roles in actions flicks: most notably his last pairing with Donnie Yen, the excellent thriller SPL.
14 Blades has been criticised as being a near-identical remake of a least one 80s Shaw Brothers film (you know, those Chinese martial arts movies with lots of blood, elaborate weapons and eccentric characters) but I think this can be largely excused, for whilst the Shaw Brothers did indeed tell their own version of a story set in this time, about the Jinyi Wei and following a member of the team who is betrayed by his own and left for dead, I think that there is enough different here in the rest of the story for it not to be negatively associated. The story of 'highly trained individuals betrayed by their own corrupt Government and left for dead' could relate to plenty of thrillers out there - from across the world - and this one has plenty else going for it (like the gimmicky but fun 14 blades gadget-box). Unfortunately, despite a bigger budget than many of its ilk, some fast, professional, stylish and brutal fight sequences, and even a few more elaborate battle set-pieces (albeit heavily enhanced by CG), and despite the presence of the charismatic Yen, and the seemingly capable Zhao, the movie simply does not achieve the same level as classics like Crouching Tiger, or Flying Daggers. Still, that is a relatively high standard to be aiming for, and 14 Blades is certainly a very nice attempt. Flawed but enjoyable.
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