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Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Guillotines (2012) review


Huang Xiaoming (Wolf), Ethan Ruan (Leng), Li Yuchun (Musen), Shawn Yue (Haidu), Jimmy Wang Yu (Gong)

Directed by Andrew Lau

The Short Version: There continues to be a steady stream of Shaw Brothers remakes coming out of Hong Kong (some now threaten to emerge from America), and Andrew Lau's envisioning of Ho Meng Hua's classic from 1975 was among the most eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, THE GUILLOTINES fails to live up to any expectations, much less the films title. Fans awaiting lots of noggin lopping will be massively disappointed -- for after the first 15 minutes (and for 30 seconds nearly an hour into the feature), you never see the famous head cleaving device again; that in itself will be the deal breaker for most. Use your head. Watch the original instead.

The Guillotines are the covert assassination unit for the Emperor. After a much sought after criminal escapes execution and kidnaps a member of the Guillotines in the process, the monarchs advisors suggest the order of hitmen be literally put out to pasture; and replaced by more devastating foreign guns and cannons. Now hunted down by their government that trained them, Leng, the last remaining of the group, has to decide whether to remain loyal to his duty or side with the man he's sworn to kill.

The long gestating remake, re-imagining, or whatever you want to call it, of Ho Meng Hua's influential THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) arrives in boisterous, yet lukewarm fashion from Andrew Lau. It's an $18 million bloated mess that can't make up its mind if it wants to be an action movie, or an historical drama; and along the way it totally forgets to find targets with which to show off its title weapon. Yes, it's called 'The Guillotines', but after the first 15 minutes, the exaggerated head cleaver is conspicuous by its absence. 

Having seen very few recent (as in the last ten years) HK movies, the likes of Lau's update is doing little to change that. Essentially a Hollywood style picture loaded with computer graphics and a cast of young skinny kids, the humanity and air of horror Ho Meng Hua amassed for the original is nowhere to be found. It's as emotionally barren as some of the rural landscapes they shot the film in. Lau's movie does manages a grim tone, but little else. THE GUILLOTINES is more concerned in shoveling a massive mount of pomposity in your face than it is in formulating a story laced with severed heads and characters you give a damn about.

Nearly every sequence in this movie contains some form of photographic trickery including a variety of dissolves and speeding up and slowing down of the film. Additionally, fight scenes (the few you get) are shot and rapidly cut in such close quarters it's difficult to see what's happening at times. In its favor, the film does breath a few moments of epic scope, but these are wasted on nationalistic monologues and political pandering. With its pedigree and how it was marketed, viewers expect an action film, but do not get one. If you've seen the trailer, than you've seen all the bits with the title head loppers. The filmmakers apparently thought the best thing for the movie was NOT to showcase the Flying Guillotine in its own movie.

Since there's not much else worth talking about in regards to the picture, let's discuss the weapon itself since you see so little of it in the film.

Ho Meng Hua's 1975 movie introduced arguably the most terrifying martial arts movie weapon ever devised. Allegedly a real creation from ancient Chinese history, no known historical accounts detail what the weapon looked like. Entirely fabricated to suit the film, the weapon itself is a fascinating creation; and one that looks entirely operational. The weapon itself, and its practicality was featured on a 2011 episode of The Discovery Channel series MYTH BUSTERS.

The popularity of Ho's movie initiated a string of similar head cleavers, with varying degrees of success. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) remains the most believable, and stylistically impressive. Shaw Brothers released their own clone in the form of THE DRAGON MISSILE in 1976, and again directed by Ho Meng Hua. Jimmy Wang Yu famously co-starred the weapon (a dime store edition of it) in his ONE ARMED BOXER 2 aka MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976); he used a variation of it again in his DEADLY SILVER SPEAR from 1977. Also from '77 is another FG clone seen in THE GREATEST PLOT from director Au Yeung Chuen. A more closer approximation appeared in THE FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINES (1977). Not to be outdone, the Shaw's produced a genuine sequel to their original -- a severely troubled production that began in 1976 and didn't surface till 1978 -- THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2. Ho Meng Hua directed the weapon once more in his Shaw 'B' exploitation flick, THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978) -- a quasi-sequel that takes place within the same time frame of the '75 original.

This new 2012 incarnation is a radically modified design. Via animated drawings during the credits, we see the evolution of the Guillotine to its final stage in Lau's movie. Considering the CGI trickery available, the allure of going overboard is simply too great, and the Guillotine ends up about as SciFi as you can get. The method by which it's activated goes far beyond any realism, not to mention its operation goes explained -- unlike the original movie. It's launched via a moon sickle-shaped sword. The actual guillotine blade is wrapped, chain-like, around the forearms and shins of the thrower. Some unexplained alien technology is all I can come up with as to how the blade suddenly finds itself spinning rapidly along the curved sword; and once thrown, it acts as a sort of heat-seeking missile; zipping around corners with the greatest of ease somehow finding its target every time.

The Guillotine Squad, in their intimidatingly dark, metallic attire become outdated in the new film once the Emperor becomes entranced with foreign guns and firepower. They are then ordered to be annihilated to erase their ugly history and connection with the hierarchy. In turn, the group members are hunted down in much the same way Ma Teng (Chen Kuan Tai) was in the '75 production. The difference here is you actually cared about Chen Kuan Tai's character. Ethan Ruan is Leng the main Guillo-thrower, but his character name should have been Lao Zi as his face rarely moves, looking very tired and sleepwalking through the entire thing. There's one woman among the group -- dressed as a man, no less -- which does little to discern the black-clad individuals since they all look the same in their semi-androgynous way. 

Huang Xiaoming plays Wolf, the man the Emperor wants dead. The Chinese Kung Fu Jesus in the film, he's the most interesting character of the lot. He's also the only main male character you never see randomly balling his eyes out. For such an elite group of hardened, highly trained assassins, the Guillotines are just as prone to shedding tears as they are blood. These are sensitive Guillotines, you see. Wolf is their main target, though. He's the leader of a group of pacifist rebels (referred to as Herders) that wander around the countryside seeking freedom and spreading the gospel. Wolf sees visions, too; and upon being taken to his execution, vow to return to set his people free. There's also quite a bit of politicizing about the government and its tyrannically oppressive methods that lead to civil unrest and uprisings.

There's so much of everything else that's lacking that leads one to believe the filmmakers totally forgot what sort of movie they were making. Sadly, the filmmakers abandon the potential for popcorn greatness a modern upgrade of the classic head-slicer could deliver. In its defense, Lau's movie possesses a grim tone much of the time, bolstered by Edmond Fung's cinematography. Doubly troubling is with all its boisterous bells and whistles, the film just sits there when it should move. The constant barrage of flashy editing and camera tricks quickly becomes annoying -- likely leading to viewers familiar with the source material to eject this bloated misfire from their DVD player and watch the original instead. Now there's an idea!

Hong Kong cinema nostalgia fanatics will get a mild kick out of seeing former big screen bad boy Jimmy Wang Yu in a small role as the trainer of the head lopping, imperial special forces. It's a curious bit of casting since he was in the second most well known FG flick and not the Shaw original.

Less interested in being an entertaining action movie, THE GUILLOTINES aspires to be something in the vein of an artistic historical drama. Dotted with a few action scenes and an out of place title weapon, Andrew Lau's big budget epic fails to satisfy anyone in the end. Grossly disappointing. Unless you absolutely have to see it, don't worry about holding onto your head, just hold onto your money. 

This review is representative of the Well Go USA DVD.


Franco Macabro said...

Ahh man! I saw this the other day at Best Buy and almost bought it, but chose other films...still...I have to admit I am super curious for it. I mean, I loved the original films...Im gonna see it and probably review it, but sad to hear it was dissapointing for you. I does look cool though, cool poster....but what the hell...poster as we all know can be deceiving.

By the way dude, recently saw 8 Diagram Pole up soon! Loved it by the way!

venoms5 said...

I already knew going in I wasn't going to like it after I'd read the guillotine is hardly in the movie at all. So I wasn't surprised. I paid $10 for it, so it was worth it just to see it for myself.

8 DIAGRAM has been remade too, Fran. Last years SAVING GENERAL YANG from Ronny Yu. Now that was a good movie. I'll be on the lookout for your write up, buddy!

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for the info on the 8 Diagram Polefighter remake.

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