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Action megastar Donnie Yen adds yet another notch to his ever growing belt with “14 Blades”, the latest wuxia epic from director Daniel Lee, recently responsible for another period set blockbuster in “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon”. In addition to Yen, the film has a mightily impressive supporting cast that includes Vicki Zhao (“Red Cliff”), Taiwanese pop idol Wu Chun (“Butterfly Lovers”), Kate Tsui (recent winner of Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards for the Milkyway production “Eye in the Sky”), and Singaporean actor Qi Yuwu (“Painted Skin”), with special appearances from genre legends Sammo Hung, Wu Ma and Shaw Brothers favourite Chen Kuan Tai. The film was a smash hit with both the public and the critics, being the top grossing film of the 2010 Chinese New Year holidays, and being nominated for Best Action Choreography and Best Sound Design at the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards.
Set towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the film revolves around the Jinyiwei, specially trained warriors who served as enforcers and secret police for the imperial court. Yen stars in the lead role as their current captain, taking the name Qinglong in defence of the realm and using the titular box of blades which serve as weapons, instruments of interrogation, grappling hooks and other gadgets. Despite his unflinching loyalty, he is framed by the evil eunuch Jia Jingzhong as part of a plot to help an exiled prince (Sammo Hung) seize power. Hunted by his own men, not to mention a mysterious assassin called Tuotuo (Kate Tsui), he joins forces with a security company and a desert bandit (Wu Chun) to try and clear his name and thwart the conspiracy.
“14 Blades” is a marked improvement over Daniel Lee’s enjoyable though slight “Three Kingdoms”, being much more focused and benefitting from a look which is both stylish and gritty. Lee makes good use of the gorgeous Chinese scenery, and to an extent the film functions as a road movie, with Yen and co travelling through cities, misty forests and eventually the desert, taking on an almost “Dragon Gate Inn” feel in its later stages, which is no bad thing. This having been said, during the battle heavy final act, Lee’s direction is actually quite reminiscent of recent Hollywood Middle East set war films, with plenty of shaky camera work, aerial shots and sudden explosions. All of this works quite well, and the film is a rare example of a modern genre production which manages to combine occasional flashes of CGI and fantasy elements along with more old school fight choreography and action. This helps to keep it grounded, and gives its plentiful martial arts and grand battle scenes much more of an impact that in other recent films such as “Storm Warriors”.
Although the plot itself is nothing new it still manages to engage, mainly since the amusingly coiffured Yen is on good form, getting involved in an impressive number of fights and having lots of opportunities to show off his lightening fast skills. His final duel with Kate Tsui’s odd, vaguely supernatural killer is probably the film’s standout scene, with the actress even managing to add a little depth and sympathy to what could easily have been a one note role. Although Vicki Zhao is criminally underused (sadly something which is becoming a bit of a trend), she again proves that she is pretty much impossible to dislike in any film, and her scenes with Yen help by adding a few light touches, if perhaps not any real emotional depth.
The cast certainly do give the proceedings a boost, and lift “14 Blades” to being one of the better of the recent wave of big budget wuxia outings. Donnie Yen really seems incapable of doing any wrong, and shows real star quality in the lead, while Daniel Lee ups his game and manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of other similarly themed CGI overloads, serving up a good mixture of martial arts, battle scenes and epic vistas.
Daniel Lee (director) / Daniel Lee, Abe Kwong (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Green Dragon
Wei Zhao … Qiao Hua
Chun Wu … Judge
Kate Tsui … Tuo Tuo
Yuwu Qi … Xuan Wu
Kuan Tai Chen … Water Moon Monk
Hak On Fung
Chen Zhi Hui … Bai Hu
Sammo Hung Kam-Bo … Prince Qing