14 Blades Review
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Genres are built on formulas—a kind of grab bag of characters, plots, and action choreography that are endlessly recycled and recombined in hopes of finding a combination that will capture the imagination. When it works, you get something special. When it doesn’t, as in the case of Daniel Lee’s 2010 Hong Kong martial arts epic 14 Blades, you can end up with a film that reminds you of superior works while leaving very little in the way of its own impression.

14 Blades stars Donnie Yen as Qinglong, the commander of the emperor’s secret police force, the Jinjiwei, during the Ming dynasty. The Jinjiwei do the empire’s dirty work, and it doesn’t take long before a corrupt official begins using them to undermine the current ruler and foster a revolt in favor of the emperor’s exiled uncle, Prince Qing (Sammo Hung). In the midst of the schemes, Qinglong finds himself betrayed and hunted by the Jinjiwei, forcing him to turn to the aid of outlaws in order to prevent Qing from seizing power.

Many of these characters, or more accurately character types, will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time with the genre. The reluctant warrior, the corrupt official, the charismatic bandit, the feisty young heroine—you can mix and match these into any number of martial arts films.

Yen anchors the film with a subdued performance as the conflicted Qinglong, but the character arc is so lightly developed that he’s not really been given enough to work with. There’s some sense of his transition from merciless government assassin to heroic idealist (along with a completely unnecessary and unconvincing love story), but it’s not dynamic enough to draw focus from the film’s meandering plot. Wu Chun breathes a little more life into the proceedings as the colorful outlaw leader, Judge of the Desert, but even then the character is given far too little screen time.

As I stated at the outset, stock characters are hardly uncommon in this kind of film. Weakness in one area can be overlooked if there’s sufficient strength in others, but 14 Blades also falls short in the areas of plot and action. The film runs probably 20 minutes too long, and the machinations of Qing and his minions can be difficult to follow.

The biggest problem lies with the action. Despite the thinly sketched character, Donnie Yen has physical presence and has proven himself as a screen martial artist. Due more to the editing than the choreography, the fights seem disjointed, and it can be difficult to follow. Also thrown in are inconsistent CGI effects and rough wirework, yielding a result that has the some of the kinetic flow of a good fight but very little of the storytelling. Even Qinglong’s signature weapon—a kind of epic Swiss army knife, with each of the 14 blades meant for a different purpose—comes off as more confusing than intimidating.

It’s not that 14 Blades is a terrible film, or even a particularly bad one. It’s an installment in a film history that prizes and rewards a certain degree of predictability and repetition. The problem is that nearly everything it does has been done better elsewhere, leaving it an acceptable film to watch but never one to get excited about.

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