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China, early Qing dynasty, 1740. In the fifth year of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (Wen Zhang), on the northwest frontier in Gansu province, an anti-Qing, quasi-religious faction called The Herders, formed by the legendary Tianlang (Huang Xiaoming) 15 years earlier, started killing imperial officials.
To eradicate the threat, the Manchu court sent a secret assassination squad of six people known as The Guillotines, who captured Tianlang alive. On the day of his execution, Tianlang escapes and one of The Guillotines, Guaerjia Musen (Chris Lee), disappears. The commander of The Guillotines, Gonge (Jimmy Wang), orders the five remaining assassins to pursue and kill Tianlang, and tells their leader, Nala Leng (Ethan Ruan), to bring back the body of Musen, who is his daughter.
The Guillotines take along Bai Lan (Li Meng), a young woman who helped Tianlang escape, as a hostage. Against the wishes of Gonge, they're also accompanied by Haidu (Shawn Yue), the emperor's chief bodyguard, who is secretly planning to replace The Guillotines with soldiers armed with western artillery. The group finds Tianlang in a remote township, Wuguan, but doesn't dare to do anything as all the locals support him. Musen is still alive, having been starved and tortured by Tianlang to teach her the meaning of suffering.
Tianlang demands that Leng exchanges himself for her, otherwise he will kill her. Leng agrees, although Haidu tells him that soldiers with artillery are on the way. The handover ends in chaos, and eventually The Guillotines find themselves with a price on their heads, hunted by Haidu and betrayed by the emperor they were once sworn to protect.
About an hour into The Guillotines, which until then has been a fairly formulaic action movie about a Manchu emperor's assassination squad hunting a Han Chinese freedom-fighter, the script suddenly comes up with an interesting idea: what happens when professional assassins, reared to become unthinking killers and deliberately trained not even to read or write, are themselves betrayed by their emperor and left stranded? Furthermore, how to make the audience sympathise with them as they now become the good guys, on the side of the Han heroes? It's an idea/problem that the script, credited to no less than six writers (including Aubrey LAM and Joyce CHAN, both of whom previously worked with producer Peter CHAN), grapples with during the second half but never really develops or resolves in a fittingly powerful way. Though it's an entertaining enough ride, thanks to professional direction by Hong Kong veteran Andrew LAU, The Guillotines always has the feel of a film that could have been much better than it finally turned out — a project that went through so many re-writes and paste-jobs that it would have been better to have simply gone back to scratch and totally re-invented it with one clear idea.
The biggest stumbling block turns out to be the Chinese title itself — that of a classic Shaw Bros. movie, The Flying Guillotine (1975), directed by studio journeyman HO Meng-hua and starring CHAN Koon-tai and KU Feng, about a flying steel helmet that lops off its victim's head and was supposedly used by the Manchu Yongzheng Emperor as an instrument of terror. Though The Guillotines uses the same Chinese title (which literally means The Blood Dripper), it's set later, during the reign of Yongzheng's son, Qianlong, and has a completely different plot. The deadly decapitator of the title — here much jazzier than the Shaw Bros. version — only features in the first 20 minutes, and then largely in an opening sequence to show off the 3-D. Thereafter, the plot pretty much ditches the weapon as a dramatic device.
As well as the stranded-assassins idea, the script flirts with a whole range of other ones: Han freedom-fighter Tianlang (played with impassioned eyes by Mainland actor HUANG Xiaoming, so good in An Inaccurate Memoir) is given a quasi-religious, Jesus-like look and charisma; the sole female member of The Guillotines squad (strongly played by tomboy Mainland singer Chris LEE, the spunky swordswoman in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)) is captured and tortured by Tianlang, "to give you the taste of suffering", and then converted to a life of rural Han happiness; and her associate (blankly played by Taiwan's Ethan RUAN, from Monga (2010) and Love) finds himself conflicted by his Han roots and Manchu loyalties. Huang and Lee are especially strong together, notably in a scene where he lectures her with a story after cutting down her broken body.
But it's the emperor's chief bodyguard, who's in favour of western artillery over home-made gizmos, who emerges as the strongest character of all, especially in Hong Kong actor Shawn YUE's icily focused performance. The relationship between Yue and Ruan's characters never catches fire in the way intended but, overall, the movie is largely motored by its strong line-up of actors, including the Mainland's WEN Zhang as the silently ruthless emperor, and Taiwanese veterans Jimmy WANG as The Guillotines' commander and CHIN Shih-chieh as an army general. (In a nice film-buffy reference, Wang made his own rip-off, Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976), some 35 years ago.) For its performances alone, the movie earns an extra point.
Lau, who replaced the originally planned Teddy CHEN as director, goes for an interesting style that's semi-realistic rather than studio-bound, with a mobile camera and plenty of ethnic flavour in the scenes of rural life. Apart from the VFX showcase opening, the action is gritty rather than flashy. And when the story finally gets down to basics, as Yue's character climbs into impressive Manchu armour and leads the army against the yokel rebels, the versatile Lau easily switches gears to provide some good-old-fashioned spectacle, nicely abetted by the widescreen vistas of Hong Kong d.p. Edmond FUNG (72 Martyrs (2011)) of Shanxi locations (doubling not very convincingly for Gansu province). Lau himself also contributes a magisterial cameo as the Yongzheng Emperor in flashbacks.
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