The latest film from director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) kicks off with a promising and strong opening sequence, with the titular elite fighting group in action. This secret squad is small but deadly, serving at the behest of the Qing Dynasty emperor, and their preferred weapon gives them their name. Featured prominently in the initial battle scene, this killing device is a circular set of spinning blades launched from a curved and scythe-like sword that hones in on its intended target, like an ancient form of GPS positioning, descending upon and decapitating a victim. The wildly kinetic curtain-raiser makes for an exciting opening, but unfortunately the rest of the film soon devolves into a muddled hodgepodge of rote betrayals, male bonding, and bloodless drama that completely squanders the potential for compelling action that The Guillotines initially promises.
The film’s very convoluted and often baffling plot is set into motion when the Guillotines capture the Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), the leader of the Herders, an ethnically Han Chinese, quasi-religious group and the main opposition to China’s Manchu rulers. The Guillotines are tasked with executing Wolf, but their leader, Leng (Ethan Juan), decides instead to keep him alive to use as a bargaining chip in a power play to gain higher status in the court. However, on the day he’s to be executed, Wolf escapes with help of the Herders, and he kidnaps Musen (Li Yuchun), the sole female Guillotine.
Meanwhile, a new emperor ascends the throne, who seeks to bring modern Western weapons, such as guns and cannons, to China. He regards the Guillotines as an inconvenient anachronism with no place in his new order. The Guillotines, never publicly acknowledged, find themselves betrayed and set adrift by their rulers, and since they have been kept deliberately illiterate and treated as simply human weapons, their very identity and sense of purpose is completely shattered. With nowhere else to turn, they join forces with the Herders, since much like them they have become enemies of the state. Adding to these complications is the arrival of Haidu (Shawn Yue), an imperial envoy ostensibly sent to advise the Guillotines, but who unbeknownst to them is working for the new emperor to eradicate them.
A loose reimagining of the 1975 Shaw Brothers classic The Flying Guillotine, The Guillotines is an unfortunate victim of its troubled production history—its original director, Teddy Chan (Bodyguards and Assassins), was replaced by Andrew Lau after the production was completely shut down, reportedly due to script issues. The final product is credited to no less than six screenwriters, which most likely accounts for its ramshackle dramatic construction and frequent lapses of logic. For example, Wolf brutally tortures Musen after he captures her, but later becomes a Gandhi-like figure of peace.
Die-hard action fans will doubtless be disappointed by the fact that, beyond the opening sequence, the titular weapon almost completely disappears from the movie in favor of familiar martial-arts action that breaks no new ground whatsoever. Also, other than Leng and Musen, the Guillotines never emerge as compelling characters, so the tragedies that befall them have very little emotional impact. Shawn Yue is quite good as the steely, efficient enforcer Haidu, and Huang Xiaoming manages to exude considerable charisma despite his ill-conceived character. Unfortunately, Taiwanese heartthrob Ethan Juan is a blankly bland presence in what should have been a riveting central performance.
The best that can be said for The Guillotines is that the considerable talent involved, including cinematographer Edmond Fung, prevents this from becoming a total disaster, given the tortured path it traveled to the screen. However, it falls far short from being a memorable or accomplished film.