Movie Review – The Guillotines (2012)
A modern reworking only very loosely based on the 1975 Shaw Brothers film this new installment of The Guillotines (2012) by director Andrew Lau is completely D.O.A. with a completely impenetrable patch-work plot, cardboard characters and a lack of guillotine-inspired action. Lau is no stranger to the action genre having helmed some of the biggest Hong Kong films of the past few decades including Young and Dangerous, The Storm Riders, A Man Called Hero and the entire Infernal Affairs trilogy making The Guillotines’ total lack of action acumen a mystery on the level of the location of the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
To be blunt it is fair to say that this is a project which went through development Hell for many years yet the final product is so indecisive that one wishes it were never made. The biggest issue however, is the totally inexplicable divide between the film’s marketing material and the actual finished product itself as every single advertisement boasted that the movie was some sort of action spectacle when it is anything but. Andrew Lau and his team of six writers (never a good sign!) have attempted to craft a movie that is actually much more politically oriented than initially thought yet someone must have forgotten to send the marketing team the memo.
Focused on a super-secret group of Manchu assassins codenamed the Guillotines which act in the name of the Emperor the movie initially chronicles their exploits in dealing with enemies of the court through not-so legal avenues, usually involving chopping someone’s head off. Yes, they are definitely not subtle, yet they are simply the best agents around doing the nasty work within the shadows in order to protect the crown. As the film opens the group descends on a secret meeting of revolutionaries headed by a Han Chinese named Wolf (Huang Xioaming) who audiences will immediately recognize as visually looking like a Chinese version of Jesus.
Nevertheless, it is this opening sequence which sets the tone for the rest of the film showcasing the team utilizing their guillotine weapons which resemble mystical scythes that can apparently track any human being like a guided missile and summarily rip their heads off in gory displays of blood. The entire sequence is totally over-the-top as director Andrew Lau plays up their fantastical nature allowing his camera to essentially flow right inside the guillotine weapons themselves as audiences are treated to some awful CG of the inner mechanisms featuring various gears and other metallic doodads whirling about.
The intent of the sequence is entirely obvious though, first by introducing each Guillotine team member as well as showing how super-human they appear to be when wielding their almost magical weaponry. At the same time it portrays Wolf as someone who is not meant to be trifled with as he basically fights them all to a standstill for a long period of time before being captured. Although viewers will cringe at the less than worthy special effects there is no doubt that at this point in the film that most will expect the movie to continue on this set path of showcasing this team of super assassins and their exploits in doling out justice. It simply doesn’t come to pass.
Instead, the movie suddenly shifts gears in as abrupt a manner as possible as if a rookie driver mistakenly rammed his foot onto the brakes as the movie screeches to a halt as the real plot kicks in. Sentenced to death by hanging Wolf is instead saved by some of his loyal followers but in the scuffle he manages to capture the only female Guillotine member, Musen (Li Yuchun). Under orders from Emperor Qianlong the team’s wise mentor promotes Leng (Ethan Ruan) to leader and tasks him to try and save Musen while finding and then dealing with Wolf once and for all. However, something is soon amiss even before the mission is launched as the Emperor assigns one of his officers named Haidu (Shawn Yue) to follow along and provide “assistance” which does nothing but raise suspicions amongst the assassins.
The Guillotines then descends into cinematic quicksand as instead of focusing on rousing action, or any action for that matter, the film becomes a quasi-police procedural as the entire Guillotine team goes undercover while infiltrating Han Chinese territory. There they find a small rural town where Wolf has chosen to hide while delivering constant sermons on how the Han Chinese should band together to ensure a better future. At face value this doesn’t sound so bad a plot twist but the script has no idea how a procedural is meant to work as the team’s only method of investigation is to walk calmly through town and immediately spot anything that looks awkward. Instead of busting heads or even talking to the citizens to see if they can extract information the audience is treated to umpteen scenes where a Guillotine member zooms in on some poor sap who so happens to look suspicious.
Admittedly, a team of crack assassins may not be skilled in the investigative arts yet if this were true it would be a damning example of the Emperor’s incompetence to assign the wrong team to the task. Then again the inclusion of the Imperial Officer Haidu who, essentially works as a political guard for the Crown, should be foreshadowing enough that the Emperor has other plans besides the capture of Wolf.
However, director Andrew Lau and his scriptwriters totally botch the reveal of the Emperor’s real motives and instead of building to some shocking twist or double-cross the film basically lets Haidu tell Leng point blank early in the film that he is there to ensure Wolf is killed and that the Guillotines are summarily dealt with as well because the Emperor does not want the sordid details of their work to sully his future legacy.
As the main protagonist, Leng as played by Ethan Ruan, is a totally conflicted character who spends the bulk of the movie internalizing his turmoil torn between duty to the crown and his friendship to the rest of his Guillotine team members. Nevertheless, his character arc should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a similar narrative take place as most would expect that he will side with his friends. Unfortunately, the script has other ideas and instead of being proactive in his plans Leng ends up on the opposite end of the spectrum being as passive as a possum. This results in events that Leng allows to occur with dire consequences leaving him in a totally reactive mode where he inexplicably remains just as passive as ever.
This is highly maddening to watch and I am sure the majority of the audience will grow restless wondering just when Leng and his cohorts will eventually get off their posteriors to fight back. Alas, this is where the film totally deviates from its marketing material because, wait for it, the expected heroic deeds never come to pass. Essentially, director Andrew Lau has crafted a film that starts dark and gloomy and progressively dives deeper into further emotional turmoil. It is the antithesis of what most viewers will expect especially if they’ve grown accustomed to Hollywood’s propensity to force films towards a happy ending. The Guillotines aspires to be a patriotic moralistic film about how to properly govern through respect and honor instead of the sharp end of the sword yet the message is buried beneath a torrent of brutish actions by the Crown that makes the literally last thirty-second turnaround by a key character feel totally false.
At the same time audiences are going to feel duped here as the heroes start falling one by one almost always through ridiculous sequences that clearly contradict the film’s opening ten minutes. The closest analogy I can come up with is to think of the opening moments of this film as being the end attack on New York in last year’s The Avengers where all the superheroes come together to kick ass. While eliminating the opposition The Avengers clearly showed how each superhero had different physical and mental abilities that they deployed in order to knock their foes silly. However, imagine what would happen if The Avengers then took a quick U-turn and morphed into a lacsidaisical morality tale and then puzzlingly each super hero forgot how to utilize their abilities. This is exactly what occurs in The Guillotines as each member is dispatched without much fanfare and not one of them manages to fight back with even a smidgen of skill they displayed in the opening ten minutes.
All those generic CG effects where the camera entered each weapon never appear again as the film essentially neuters the entire Guillotine team reducing their cool scythe-like weapons to simple machetes almost as if there was no more budget left forcing the filmmakers to go grab a spare sword from the storage locker.
Making a patriotic movie where the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few” isn’t exactly groundbreaking cinema yet The Guillotines is incredibly ham-fisted in this regard as it paints the heroes and villains with enormous broad strokes and director Andrew Lau does everything in his power to structure the movie in the same fashion. Wolf and the Han Chinese, especially in the third act, are bathed in gloriously rich vibrant colours while the music soundtrack soars with epic jovial music. In contrast, the Manchu Emperor and his cohorts are oftentimes in dark shadows or shot with low angles accentuating their pure evilness while mournful musical cues echo in the background. You can’t be more obvious.
It is hard to grade Ethan Ruan’s performance as Leng as the character is such a laggard in terms of mental capacity but what is on screen is hardly captivating as Ruan spends much of the movie looking simply perplexed or starring pensively trying to portray his inner conflict. Huang Xiaoming as Wolf has the flashiest role here playing the Christ-like savior whom everyone adores with enough charisma to at least make a plausible leader but he too is prone to striking poses now and then especially when framed by Andrew Lau in hilariously heroic style such as the requisite shot of him standing like a superhero as buildings explode in fiery balls of flame behind him. Shawn Yue as the villainous Haidu manages to exude smarmy charm but it too is a one note performance as he clearly has no character arc to follow.
Beyond the three leads everyone else is woefully underwritten to the point where audiences are easily going to become confused as to who is who. This is clearly calamitous especially when characters start dying as each individual is poorly defined so that there is no emotional connect to any of them. With a plodding protagonist and less than recognizable supporting characters the film waffles from scene to scene where the only enjoyment is to see how far the script can alienate viewers.
One segment in particular stands out as it should have been the emotional climax for the second act yet it is so clumsy in execution that one can’t help but wish Leng threw himself off a cliff to end his suffering. In the scene he reveals that he has known all along that Haidu will eventually order the Guillotine team to be terminated prompting his friends to go berserk with emotion. However, after apologizing and affirming his “love” for them he allows them to attempt an escape of the city all by their lonesome instead of actually helping them out. Perhaps the filmmakers have a radically different definition of “heroic” than I.
*1/2 out of ****
2012, China, 112 Minutes, Stellar Megamedia Group/We Pictures
Directed by Andrew Lau
Screenplay by Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun, Joyce Chan Ka-Yi, Aubrey Lam, Phillip Lui, Guo Jun-Li, Chit Ka-Kei
Produced by Peter Chan, Andrew Lau, Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun
Executive Producer Peter Chan, Peter Lam
Original Music by Chan Kwong Wing
Cinematography by Fung Yuen Man
Huang Xiaoming: Wolf
Ethan Ruan: Leng
Li Yuchun: Musen
Shawn Yue: Haidu
Jing Boran: Houjia Shisan
Wen Zhang: Emperor Qianlong
Jimmy Wang: Gong E
Gao Tian: Hutu
Li Meng: Bai Lan
Zhou Yiwei: Buka
© 2013 The Galactic Pillow