Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Abe Kwong, Daniel Lee
Cast: Donnie Yen, Vicky Zhao Wei, Wu Chun, Qi Yu Wu, Kate Tsui, Chen Kuan Tai, Wu Ma, Sammo Hung, Xu Xiang Dong, Chen Zhi Hui, An Ruiyun, Ding Xiao Lung, Fung Hak On, Lam Chi Tai, Damian Lau, Law Kar Ying, Sun Wenting
Running Time: 114 min.
By Kyle Warner
Donnie Yen’s 14 Blades was first released internationally back in 2010. The film took its time making its way to the US, finally debuting here in 2014. Was it worth the wait? Well… no. But it’s not without its charms, however familiar they may be.
Taking place during the time of the Ming Dynasty, the film focuses on the Jinyiwei, the military police/super assassins who served the Emperor. As depicted in the film, the Jinyiwei were made up almost entirely of orphans, and were trained from an early age in ways of combat and assassination. Stripped of their names and their humanity, the new inductees were trained until there was nothing left but obedient killing machines. The story begins when the Jinyiwei leader Qinglong (Donnie Yen) is tasked with assassinating an official and retrieving a sacred treasure in his possession… but not all is at it seems. The mission is a lie, just the first part of a detailed conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor. During his mission, Qinglong learns that the sacred treasure is in fact the Emperor’s Seal. Before he can figure out what it all means, the Seal is stolen, Qinglong’s men are slaughtered, and he is made to look like a traitor and a thief.
The beginning of the film is shot on dark sets with drab colors and oppressive shadows. It’s like kung fu noir and I found it to be an interesting choice of style. However, when Qinglong goes on the run, he escapes to sunny desert locales and the entire visual scheme of the film changes. The film’s visual style is cut in two and it’s the first sign of writer/director Daniel Lee’s uncertainty about what to do with the movie he’s making.
Some have criticized the film’s overuse of CGI and wirework in its fight scenes—as is their right—however, I believe that the use of technology fits with the kind of film Lee was trying to make here. Reading the description, it sounds like just another historical action movie, but I’m almost convinced that 14 Blades was trying to be a Ming Dynasty superhero epic. Donnie Yen’s hero runs around with a box of fourteen special blades, most of which pop out with a mechanical whir, like some kind of giant, automated Swiss Army knife. The film’s most prominent villain, Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), jumps around with a metal whip and some serious dreadlocks, always accompanied by the sound of rattlesnakes. Tuo Tuo also has the ability to disappear and reappear during fights (always losing one layer of clothing in the process). On top of that we also get Sammo Hung as a conniving Prince who walks around on crutches and peg legs, Chun Wu as a Jack Sparrow-like bandit of the desert, and some random assassin who jumps out of a coffin on the side of the road (played by an almost unrecognizable Chen Kuan Tai). Oh, and at one point Donnie Yen beats up a couple guys with a chicken dinner. It’s an odd little film, and I personally liked these moments of strangeness and all the colorful characters.
… So it’s a shame that Donnie Yen’s character is so flat by comparison. Yen plays the part of the stoic hero well, grimacing and glaring at all those who share a scene with him, but there’s simply not much to the role. Zhao Wei plays the female lead, a character who helps Qinglong in his quest, alternating back and forth between willing ally and unwilling hostage for most of the film’s runtime. Her primary role in the film is to constantly remind Qinglong that the world is in need of heroes—which is about as obvious as sitting down across from Bruce Wayne and talking about how much Gotham needs Batman. Still, despite a rather bland role, I think the film needed her. Zhao Wei effortlessly brings humor and warmth to the film almost singlehandedly, which helps in the moments when Donnie Yen is not kicking ass.
My main issue with the film is that the plot is so bland and features so many borrowed parts. The stolen Seal of the Emperor is about as dull a McGuffin that you could come up with, comparable only with the spy genre’s missing microfilm. And of course there’s also an evil eunuch in the film, because you always need one of those.
These borrowed ideas and uninspired plot twists wouldn’t matter so much if the colorful nature if the film had more depth to it. Sammo Hung with peg legs sounds like an interesting character, but he only has one scene of note. Chun Wu’s bandit leader is actually kind of fun, but he comes from out of nowhere. There is a scene where Yen and Wu meet for the first time, then fight, then end the scene by agreeing to help each other with a heist. Um, okay? Who is this guy and why do you trust him? Most puzzling of all are the 14 blades. It’s an interesting device with some cool weapons tucked away inside it, but we never really get a good look at the blades themselves. In the end, the device and its blades never amounted to much.
Watching Daniel Lee’s films, I can’t decide if he’s lacking talent as a writer, a director, or both. Lee’s 2011 film White Vengeance was well written and featured a few decent performances. However, the historical epic also featured awful action sequences, poor editing, and a dull visual style. 14 Blades feels like the opposite side of the coin, where the action is the best part of the film, and the writing is its weak point. Daniel Lee’s career has been marked by inconsistency and indecision about what kind of filmmaker he wants to be. This trend continues with 14 Blades.
Fellow contributor Paul Bramhall notes that 14 Blades is a remake of the Shaw Bros. film Secret Service of the Imperial Court (aka Police Pool of Blood). I have not seen the original, so I cannot comment on the differences in plot or quality between the 1984 film and Daniel Lee’s adaptation.
Donnie Yen is one of the busiest movie stars in the world. With a seemingly constant output of new films, some productions are bound to fall shorter than others. 14 Blades is not the next Ip Man, Dragon (aka Wu Xia), or Iceman… but I’d put it a notch higher than Special ID and The Legend of the Fist. I think in time, 14 Blades will be remembered more as a curiosity. It’s a film with unfulfilled potential and some half-baked ideas, but it’s not devoid of entertainment value. Watch it for the action and you might have an okay time.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5/10