‘The Guillotines’ mixes the old and the new

'The Guillotines is a secret group of warriors and the titular weapon seen here
‘The Guillotines is a secret group of warriors and the titular weapon seen here

“Too many cooks spoil the broth” – old adage

The Guillotines is a new Wu Xia film from director Andrew Lau (who also has a small role in the movie) who is best known for 2002’s Infernal Affairs.  A period piece, The Guillotines is a re-imagining of Master of the Flying Guillotines without the original’s humor that tries to make up for this with incredible visuals.

The Guillotines are the secret enforcers of the Youngzheng Emperor.  They were charged with eliminating anyone and everyone who opposes the Emperor’s rule.  When the Qianlong Emperor ascends to the throne, The Guillotines have been successful on every single one of the 348 missions his predecessor sent them on.  But the new Emperor wants to modernize everything he can, and plans to substitute soldiers armed with guns rather than the flying guillotines used by The Guillotines.

"Wolf" and "Leng" face off in 'The Guillotines'
“Wolf” and “Leng” face off in ‘The Guillotines’

While The Guillotines are commanded by someone else, it is “Leng” (Juan) who leads them in the field.  He and his team are sent to eliminate “Wolf” (Xiaoming) and his followers who are known as The Shepherd Gang.  The Emperor commands that “Haidu” (Yue) accompany the team as his representative.

What the rest of Leng’s team doesn’t know is that Leng, Haidu and the Emperor were brought together in childhood, where Haidu and Leng were raised to be totally loyal to, and to protect the Emperor.   What Leng doesn’t know is that Haidu has two missions.  Kill Wolf and eliminate The Guillotines as they are “a stain” on the legacy of the Youngzheng Emperor.

The Guillotines are ready to fight and die for the Emperor
The Guillotines are ready to fight and die for the Emperor

The worst part of this film is that the titular weapon has been upgraded in a major way and is fascinating to watch how it is used.  You have to watch quickly because after about twenty minutes or so, you won’t see much of it after that point.  The visual presentation of this device, seeing the mechanisms that cause it to fasten around the target’s neck and then clamp its arms down before it decapitates them is fascinating.  More of the use of these devices would have been welcomed.  Particularly since one of the main themes on display here, as it was in The Last Samurai, is how firearms replaced the bladed weapons in combat.

The performances are adequate, but not exceptional.  There are brief moments when the storyline pushes the audience to become more involved with the film, but the lack of development of any of the central characters limits those moments.  This is probably due to the fact that there were just too many different writers working on the convoluted script.

It is no surprise that Andrew Lau would choose to update a Shaw Brothers film like Master of the Flying Guillotine.  The Shaw Brothers gave him his start in the industry.  I just wish it had given us those amazing images while keeping the original’s good humor and basic values.

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