Of all the period action movies that the Chinese are cranking out lately, “14 Blades” is the one I’ve been anticipating the most. It stars Donnie Yen in his usual Donnie Yen role – a tough-as-nails martial arts fighter with few if any equals. Set in Ancient China, the film has Yen playing Qinglong, the leader of the Jinyi Wei, a sort of commando squad/assassins guild that works on the behalf of the Chinese emperor. Members of the Jinyi Wei are highly skilled warriors trained to kill for the Imperial court since they were small boys abducted off the streets. As the head of the Jinyi Wei, it is Qinglong’s duty to haul around a wooden box roughly the size and length of a guitar case, except instead of a guitar, the box is tricked out with all sorts of groovy machines, including grappling hooks and, yes, the titular 14 blades. How a single man can lug around the box and its contents is a mystery, but I suppose it helps that Donnie Yen seems to have packed on some impressive extra pounds of muscle for the role.
As the film opens, exiled Prince Qing (a cameo’ing Sammo Hung) is plotting his return to power, which involves stealing the Imperial Seal for his own nefarious purposes. To this end, the crippled Prince has turned Qinglong’s fellow Jinyi Wei commando, Xuan Wu (Yuwu Qi), and after using Qinglong to grab the Imperial Seal, forces our hero to go on the run, having been labeled a traitor. Wounded but still alive and kicking, Qinglong meets up with a group of professional escorts (the armed bodyguard kind, not the high-priced variety, ahem), where he meets the acquaintance of Qiao Hua (Vicki Zhao), the daughter of the group’s leader. As these things usually go, sparks fly between the fugitive Qinglong and the lovelorn Qiao Hua, and soon the twosome are on the run from Xuan Wu and Prince Qing’s goddaughter, the very formidable (and dare I say it, incredibly sexy) Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui).
Co-written and directed by Daniel Lee, who last gave us 2008’s “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon”, and before that, the cop actioner “Dragon Squad”, “14 Blades” is a pretty straightforward period action movie, with the usual romantic interludes and heroic derring-do’s. The star, of course, is Donnie Yen, who sports some very un-Donnie Yen-like facial hair and, as previously mentioned, a noticeably bulkier physique for the role. No one has ever accused Yen of being a great actor, and indeed, he only has two or three real facial expressions that he uses regularly on all his movies. You can’t blame the guy, it’s not as if he got to where he is now thanks to summer stock productions. Yen is an ass kicker, and sure, he’s learned a thing or two about keeping something resembling a presence in-between the action scenes, but it’s still all about the action with the man.
Fortunately, “14 Blades” is chock full of ridiculously over-the-top action set pieces, with Qinglong’s many swords coming in handy in just about any and every situation. Need a crossbow? Kick the right spot on the case and you’ve got yourself a three-arrow launching crossbow. Need any one of its 14 housed blades? Slap this spot or that, and you got your pick of the litter. It really is silly how the filmmakers expect us to believe Qinglong, or anyone not named Thor, the Asgard God of Thunder can carry around something like that sword box. But of course, suspensions of disbelief are a must in films where people can hop twenty feet into the air or throw a sword like a boomerang. And besides, the ludicrous nature of the film’s many action set pieces perform exactly as they were designed to, which are to keep the film moving so that you don’t really notice the hackneyed script.
To give the film credit, while Qinglong is a pretty dangerous fella, he’s not invincible. He gets hurt pretty regularly, in fact, and every now and then he puts his guard down just enough to have a log break in two across his temple. Daniel Lee and company made a wise choice having Qinglong’s main foe be the mysterious and brilliantly underdeveloped Tuo Tuo. Played by former Miss Hong Kong Kate Tsui, we know almost nothing about the deadly Tuo Tuo, except that she’s one smoking hot dame, though you probably wouldn’t want to stare at her too long for fear she might just, well, kill you. Armed with a metal rope/chain weapon that can slice through flesh as easily as stone, Tuo Tuo literally cuts a bloody swath through the film’s male combatants, concluding, as it must, in a final brawl against Qinglong. Obviously a former Miss Hong Kong (by way of California, no less!) didn’t develop super fighting skills overnight, resulting in much of Tuo Tuo’s action scenes being heavily manipulated by CGI, giving the deadly lass abilities more akin to comic book’s The Flash.
Chinese period cinema mainstay Vicki Zhao has done so many of these movies that it’s probably second nature to her by now. Besides last year’s “Mulan”, Zhao also had a substantial role in John Woo’s historical epic “Red Cliff”, and before that, the supernatural period actioner “Painted Skin”. But she probably kicked off her current streak of “cute girl with expressive eyes and soulful disposition stuck in a man’s world” roles in 2003’s “Warriors of Heaven and Earth”. To her credit, Zhao’s scenes with Yen reminds us of just how far Yen still has to go as an actor, as well as how good Zhao is playing this familiar archetype. The film’s other notable supporting performance is turned in by pop star Chun Wu, here playing a Jack Sparrow-type desert pirate by the name of the Judge of the Desert. Wu’s desert bandit adds some much-needed color to the film, though his arc is a bit out of left field and not all that convincing.
If you thought “14 Blades” was just another excuse to watch Donnie Yen whup some ass in period setting and fall deeply into Vicki Zhao’s expressive eyes, then you’re not too far off. The film is working from a very weak script, and a lot of the movie’s narrative plotting doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The concept of the Jinyi Wei is intriguing, but although they’re initially introduced as shadowy killers with superior assassin skills, they end up being just another group of faceless victims throughout the movie. Apparently only Qinglong had any real special skills, which sort of, well, makes the entire organization not nearly as fearsome as we’ve been told. And while it’s true that Daniel Lee does indulge in some shoddy special effects here and there in the service of gratuitous establishing shots of various locations, on the bright side he also made sure that whenever the action started to lag, there’s always a whole lot of Vicki Zhao in perfect framing and shot in very good light.
Daniel Lee (director) / Abe Kwong, Daniel Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Qinglong
Vicki Zhao … Qiao Hua
Chun Wu … Judge
Kate Tsui … Tuo Tuo
Yuwu Qi … Xuan Wu
Kuan Tai Chen … Water Moon Monk
Sammo Hung Kam-Bo … Prince Qing