Well Go USA // 2012 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jason Panella // September 4th, 2013
The Ultimate Weapon!
This is what happens when you bring a flying guillotine to a gunfight.
The Guillotines are a clandestine group of assassins who do the bidding of China's emperor during the Qing Dynasty. The team have an unblemished track record, and are experts of the mysterious weapon known as the flying guillotine. As good as the Guillotines might be, they learn that there's something even more powerful than their skills: gunpowder.
Let's get this out of the way: The Guillotines can't decide if it wants to be a straight-up wuxia movie or a historical drama and, as a result, it's kind of a mess. There are crazy action sequences that sag from an overabundance of CGI, and there are prolonged scenes of quiet conversation that feel like they're from an entirely different movie. But it's never a bad film, and the good parts-â€"and there are definitely good partsâ€"-never add up to a satisfying whole.
The film kicks off with an obnoxiously stylish battle sequence that serves as an introduction the primary characters. We watch Guillotine leader Leng (Ethan Juan, Monga) and his band of imperial assassins wade through the followers of Wolf (Huang Xiaoming, Ip Man 2), a charismatic (maybe even lunatic) leader of a peasant uprising. Thanks to the over-application of some rickety CGI, we get a lengthy POV tour of the Guillotines' signature weapon: the flying guillotine, a legendary weapon that is able to lop off an enemy's head lickety split. And this isn't the funky, basket-on-a-chain thing from those Shaw brothers movies, either-â€"this flying guillotine is some sword-launched clockwork gizmo that seems to run on nanobots. Or wuxia magic! Anyway, the opening blast of martial arts carnage works in showing how awesome Leng and his team are...but it also gives an indication of how off-kilter the film's few action scenes really are. (And in case you're hoping the movie is full of flying guillotine action, be warned: the overwhelming majority of the guillotine action is in the first five minutes.)
Director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) and a small army of screenwriters quickly switch gears, though, and dive right into several parallel plots about loyalty under stress, ethnic prejudice, and how technology often eclipses tradition. The emperor is keen on using his new firearm-toting military units, so much so that he appoints the liaison Haidu (Shawn Yue, Infernal Affairs 2) to look for reasons to oust the Guillotines. (Which is especially funny, since the emperor's firearm squads apparently went to the Imperial Stormtrooper school of marksmanship.) There's a connection between Leng and Haidu, of course, and this provides some of the film's best scenes. But the screenplay jumps around way too much and never spends enough time fleshing out the characters' backgrounds, which becomes a major problem once the film tries to milk pathos out situations involving characters we really don't know or care about. Lau breaks up the dramatic scenes with a few action sequences later in the film that would have worked fine with some modest practical special effects; instead, there's so much sub-par CGI that you could drown in it. The film ends up being fairly watchable in the end (especially with some of the themes the film works with), but really could have a lot better if Lau would have focused a bit more exclusively on martial arts action or historical drama. The Guillotines just ends up finding some half-hearted middle ground and suffers as a result.
Well Go USA's Blu-ray release of The Guillotines is presented in 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen, and looks great. The image is consistently sharp, and the outdoor shots (of which there are many) have an impressive depth of field. There are also quite a few scenes with sparks and floating embers (many, I repeat), and they really stand out. The film also has four audio tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and Dolby Digital stereo in the original Mandarin Chinese, as well as the English dub equivalents. Both the surround and stereo tracks are precise and wonderfully clear, and switches between dialogue and full-bodied action with ease. For extras, we get the film's trailer, a decent making-of featurette, and a variety of interviews with the cast and crew that, while good, overlap quite a bit with the material in the featurette.
The Guillotines is quite good in spots, but the spots never coalesce to make a satisfying whole. But it's never a bad movie, just disappointing.
Warning issued, case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R