From Andrew Lau, the renowned director of Infernal Affairs (2002), comes The Guillotines (2012), an erratic wuxia epic that struggles to conjoin the steampunk weapon-play of its elaborate and explosive overture, with the theatrically tedious staging of the historical epic which follows. Set during China’s Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty, the visual spectacle of The Guillotines frantic opening soon gives way to a tale of brotherhood and the societal consequences of China’s shift from traditionalism to modernity. An incredibly stylish introduction sees sparks fly and heads roll as the eponymous assassins demonstrate the ferocity of their serrated blades and decapitating metallic discs.
Established as a top secret, cut-throat crack squad to be used by the Emperor to eradicate his adversaries, the group soon goes out of favour once Qianlong (Zhang Wen) ascends to the throne and begins adopting western technology. As the Imperial army begins relying heavily on firearms and canons the Guillotines find themselves quickly outmoded, used primarily to persecute the Han Chinese and their enigmatic leader in a sustained assault of terror and oppression. However, as time passes the collective soon discover that the man they’re hunting might not be the real enemy after all.
The promotional paratext that surrounds The Guillotines has ultimately done Lau’s film a disservice. While the energetic and bloody ballet of violence in the opening sequences lives up to the initial promise of high-tech wuxia action, this initial burst of CGI combat soon withdraws and The Guillotines finds itself malformed into a languid and excruciatingly timid period drama. The eye-catching yet preposterously sophisticated decapitating blades are rarely seen again, and despite being the initial focus of the stereoscopic fight sequences, the sound of clanging metal is soon a distant memory. Lau employs most of the film’s energy, (and presumably budget) on its opening half-hour, before transposes the narrative into an uninvolving tale of broken loyalties and suspicion.
Though a shift from tediously choreographed action to brooding, reflective drama isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the convoluted narrative is divulged across a sprawling, undeveloped cast, with the script ultimately lacking in any of the psychological intrigue and tension of Lau’s previous work. By oscillating so uncontrollably from blood and guts, to maudlin tragedy, the revisionist action drifts seamlessly from cliché to cliché, removing any semblance of drama, while an invasive orchestral score attempts to amplify the derisory emotion that quivers below the film’s ostentatious façade. Spectacular crane shots of the Chinese countryside and some solid performances mean The Guillotines is easy on the eye, with the gorgeous landscapes and spectacular fight sequences culminating in a mesmerising visual assault.
The elaborate plot hinges entirely on the precarious relationships shared between the two brothers who find themselves on different sides of the same conflict. Sadly, a script compromised by some woefully tactless dialogue and a series of hurried historical flashbacks quickly extinguish any credibility from their relationship, culminating in a laboriously benign drama that’s mitigated by its grand scale. An entirely forgettable actioner that recoils into anonymity against its epic backdrop of feuding ethnic factions, The Guillotines is a bewildering, disorganised martial arts offering that will only be of interest to the most die-hard of genre fans.