J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

14 Blades, Wielded by Donnie Yen

The Jinyiwei were one of the earliest forerunners of the Secret Service, but they soon became one of the first secret police organizations. Their original mandate was to protect the Ming Emperor, but they quickly became a law unto themselves. Feared and despised, Jinyiwei agents lived short and lonely lives. Nobody understands this better than Qinglong, who persists at any cost to complete what he assumes will be his final assignment in Daniel Lee’s 14 Blades (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Jinyiwei, Qinglong carries the service’s notorious 14 blades: eight are devised for torture, five for fighting (so to speak), and one is designed for a Jinyiwei’s final exit. Like many of his brothers, Qinglong survived a brutal recruitment process when he was only just a child. He still carries the emotional scars from his baptism of fire, so the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when he discovers the Jinyiwei leadership has been corrupted by their eunuch commander, Jia Jingzhong.

Realizing his was set-up during his latest mission, Qinglong goes rogue, seeking the missing imperial seal Jia and his ally, the treasonous Prince Qing, intend to use to legitimize their power grab. Although outnumbered, Qinglong will recruit key allies, retaining the services of the nearly bankrupt Justice Escort Agency (and developing a doomed attraction to proprietor Qiao Yong’s rebellious daughter, Qiao Hua in the process). He will also forge an alliance with a notorious highwayman known as “The Judge” and his Heaven Eagles Gang, who will get to keep all the gold the conspirators are transporting with the Macguffin seal.

14 Blades does not exactly break a lot of new wuxia ground, but the striking Yinchuan desert locations distinguishes it from the field. Kate Tsui (2004 Miss Hong Kong) also makes a memorable nemesis as Tuo Tuo, Prince Qing’s adopted daughter. She her serpentine lash is a fearsome weapon, but the way she sheds her apparently animated robes to disorient her opponents does not make much sense (nor is it done for purposes of titillation). She has the fight chops though, which is the important. When she and Qinglong finally go at it in earnest, their showdown does not disappoint.

In the Ip Man franchise and Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), Donnie Yen proved he can be enormously charismatic and engaging on-screen, but he can also be a tad distant and aloof in lesser films. Frankly, it takes a while to warm to his icy Qinglong, but eventually he forges some nicely tragic romantic chemistry with (Vicki) Zhao Wei’s pure-hearted Qiao Hua. However, Wu Chun nearly upstages Yen as the bold and impulsive Judge. When Qinglong faces him and Tsui’s Tuo Tuo, the film really takes flight. However, it is also pleasing to see crafty veterans, like the late Wu Ma and the great Sammo Hung appearing as Qiao Yong and Prince Qing, respectively.

14 Blades boasts some spectacular action, exotic scenery, and a cautionary message about absolute power and its inevitable abuses. It might not be Yen’s best work, but he responds to the first class ensemble surrounding him. A quality wuxia production, 14 Blades is recommended for serious fans and casual viewers alike when it opens this Friday (8/22) in select theaters and also launches on TWC-Radius’s VOD platforms.

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