A success in mainland China, 14 Blades is another in a long line of period martial arts dramas that intend to cross the boundary between traditional wu xia swordplay drama with conventions of extreme martial arts and formality, with its trend for CG enhanced cinematography, art cinema sensibilities and crowd pleasing wire-work. This is a true generations picture – the appearance of veteran martial arts actor/directors Wu Ma (Dead and the Deadly) and Sammo Hung (Winners and Sinners, Wheels on Meals, My Lucky Stars) help give the film kudos, while Donnie Yen (Blade 2, Tiger Cage 2 and Ip-Man) and relative new blood Wei Zhao (Red Cliff) and Kate Tsui (Lady Cop & Papa Crook) provide the requisite poster grabs.
Conan the Barbarian had one big sword. Toshiro Mifune occasionally used two. Hawk the Slayer cheated with his mini-sword extra-double projectile nonsense. But Donnie Yen has 14. Donnie plays Qinglong, an orphan turned into a killing machine by the Emperor, working his way to the chief position of the elite Jinyi Wei by the way of the warrior. Such positions have privileges – Qinglong becomes the owner of a rather non-descript looking box that contains 14 blades, all ‘hilt-ready’ should he need 13 more than the average swordsman. Only six are for killing people, so that’s OK – the other eight are for interrogation purposes. It’s a privileged position but one that, in dangerous times, is not so safe. Following a swift and brutal coup by sadistic eunuch Jia, Qinglong suddenly becomes the leader sent to ferret out those infiltrators loyal to the former emperor. However, he’s not happy and soon becomes a fugitive from his own kind, wandering the land to restore order and muster troops, including the somewhat ramshackle and anarchic Sky Eagles. He aims to overthrow the new emperor and his own former comrades. But our hero has female trouble to contend with too; there’s collateral cutey Qiao Hua and also Tou Tou, deadly razor whip wielding mistress of pain who is determined to stop Qinglong in his tracks.
14 Swords has plenty of plot and intrigue you would expect from a wu xia film (i.e. more dense and complex than from a normal martial arts exercise), some exceptional cinematography and the kind of wirework that makes you gasp. The acting is uniformly good even if some of the cameos give the impression of needless set-dressing, and the whole film has an epic feel that comes across as a class product pitched half way between Lawrence of Arabia and Conan the Barbarian. The problem is that it is so slick and safe it becomes just another period piece, no different to a good Jane Austin adaptation. Yes, limbs and heads are hacked off with abandon but it feels like an odd combination of manga adaptation (despite the fact this is an original story from the director) and Sunday afternoon drama, complete with doomed chaste romances and chivalrous derring-do, and with a hero whose sole difference from any other movie protagonist is that he carts around a sideboard of cutlery to single him out.
Enjoyable for a quiet afternoon when Sense and Sensibility doesn’t quite have the body count, this is either shocking violence for Crouching Tiger initiates or afternoon tea for swordplay aficionados. Disposable quality.