14 blocks of yummy, yummy cheese ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, February 20, 2010

14 blocks of yummy, yummy cheese

14 Blades
My rating:

So I'm alternating my reviews of the CNY cinema releases between English and Chinese movies. There's precisely three of each that I'm keen on watching, and if I still have time to spare I'll catch one of the star-studded "hor sui pin" comedies - though frankly, they're low on my list. (Besides, I doubt any of 'em will beat the one I saw already. Malaysia Boleh!) What's high on my list are kungfu action movies like this one, 'cos that's just more my cup of tea.

Speaking of which, the best beverage to accompany a viewing of 14 Blades would be wine. Lots of it.

The Jinyimei, or Brocade Guard, are an elite unit of Ming Dynasty secret agents who operate above the law. However its leader Qing Long (Donnie Yen) is forced to go rogue when he uncovers the treachery of Imperial eunuch Jia Jingzhong (Law Kar-ying), who is in league with Prince Qing (Sammo Hung) to overthrow the Emperor. Betrayed by his second-in-command Xuan Wu (Qi Yuwu) and pursued by the Prince's assassin Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), Qing Long goes incognito and enlists the aid of a security escort company led by Qiao Yong (Wu Ma) and his daughter Hua Qiao (Zhao Wei). His mission is to recover the Imperial Seal that Jia has stolen - and an encounter with the self-styled Judge of the Desert (Wu Chun), bandit leader of the Sky Eagles, leads to an unexpected offer of aid.

cheesy (chē'zē), adj. - that which aims to be profound or cool, but comes across as ridiculous. And good lord, is this movie ever so cheesy. There's enough mozzarella in here to make Pizza Hut offer their stuffed crust at no extra cost. Here's a sampling: Qing Long carries a tricked-out box that houses the titular weapons, as well as a veritable Batman's utility belt's worth of gadgets. Tuo Tuo isn't just a hawt-but-deadly assassin, she also possesses what appears to be the combined superpowers of Nightcrawler and The Flash. There's a bit in which a crossbow firing explosive arrows works and looks exactly like a freakin' RPG. And speaking of crossbows, there's a guy who can shoot mini-arrows out of his leg, and also throws a spinning double-bladed weapon like that five-pointed star thingy from Krull. All this and your standard wuxia themes of honour, brotherhood, justice, heroism, and the existential angst of living only to kill.

Okay, none of this is new to Hong Kong cinema. This is exactly the kind of overheated, high-minded action epic that Tsui Hark and John Woo used to make during their heyday. Done right, you get a Swordsman or a The Killer. Done wrong, and you get enough camembert to send France's GDP soaring. An extremely fine line separates the two; one man's awesome is another man's cheese is a third man's stupid and irritating. Tsui and Woo are much more skilled storytellers than writer-director Daniel Lee, and their films avoid the pitfalls that 14 Blades falls into - on-the-nose dialogue, muddled plotting, one-dimensional characters, and a tone-deafness to the aforementioned oh-so-profound wuxia themes. But the movie's biggest pitfall? Is really, really bad casting.

What's Zhao Wei doing here?? Did she have any idea what she signed up for? Hua Qiao is ditzy, ineffectual, starry-eyed, and a poster girl for Stockholm Syndrome - Qing Long kidnaps her when his identity is exposed, and she goes from attempting to escape to mooning after him to risking her life for him within minutes. Zhao is waaaay past that stage in her career to play a character like this. Her approach to playing such a flower vase character is "quietly dignified" - which is completely wrong, but it proves how the role is an insult to an actor of her stature. And then there's this Judge of the Desert dude. Here's a guy who dresses like Captain Jack Sparrow, says he will give up banditry when he finds a cause worth dying for, and leaps into battle with a lusty cry of "Here come the Sky Eagles!" You need a veteran scenery-chewer for a role like this, not a member of the Taiwanese boyband Fahrenheit. Google some promo images of Wu Chun in this; that mildly-irritated look on his face is the only expression he has in the entire movie.

And there's also Qi Yuwu and Kate Tsui, who aren't exactly bad - it's just that they're lousy matches for the star of the movie. Dear Mr. Donnie Yen, yes, you're Hong Kong cinema's premier action superstar, but you're only as good as your opponents. You vs. some preening PYT (of either gender) can never beat you and another trained martial artist going at it, no matter how the action choreography and editing tries to hide Qi's and Tsui's lack of skill. Which, to be fair, they do a not-half-bad job of - that's something Hong Kong cinema has always been good at, and the fight scenes do generate some decent thrills. As for the Yenster himself - yes, in martial prowess he's more than a worthy heir apparent to Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but for screen presence he doesn't quite match up yet. Roles like perpetually stoic badass Qing Long ain't gonna stretch his acting range none.

Okay, it's not all bad. The movie looks great, for one thing. It takes us to the northern desert regions of China, which you don't often see in Hong Kong period kungfu flicks. Yes, some of it - especially that desert city - is CGI, but a lot of it is also some terrific set design and gorgeous locations. And there's the aforementioned fight scenes, which are overly-elaborate but effective. ('Sides, it's not like Tsui Hark's and John Woo's action scenes weren't the same.) That's about it for the film's unironic pleasures, though. Everything else is enough limburger to set off a chemical weapons alert.

But cheese is cheese, and it can still be enjoyed on the level of cheese. (There's also deliberate cheese, which is really the best kind, but this movie isn't that self-aware.) Much of the movie had me facepalming, but later on I found myself giggling maniacally, and by the climactic fight scene I was genuinely enjoying myself - but first I had a good laugh at how the fight just happens to take place at a picturesquely gloomy ancient-underground-tomb-ish place for no reason. So yeah, three stars for 14 Blades, which is tantamount to a recommendation to pick it up on DVD. That way, you can also grab a bottle of merlot to go with all the gorgonzola.

NEXT REVIEW: Percy Jackson and Lightning Thief
Expectations: bah Chris Frigging Columbus


Anonymous said...

"...spinning double-bladed weapon like that five-pointed star thingy from Krull..."

It's called the Glaive.

TMBF said...

I knew that.