The Guillotines (2012)
Director: Andrew Lau
Writers: Aubrey Lam, Joyce Chan, Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun, Peter Tsi, Junli Guom, and Koon-nam Lui
Starring: Xiaoming Huang, Ethan Juan, Purba Rgyal, Tian Gao, and Jimmy Wang Yu

The Plot: The Guillotines are a special group of warriors compiled with the goal of protecting the Qing dynasty. They are magnificent fighters who help control the flow of the kingdom from the shadows. Their weapon of choice is a spinoff of the flying guillotine, and they are well known for taking the head off of their enemies. However, they may have met their match when they confront a mystical man named Wolf (Huang Xiaoming) who is the leader of a cult-like group known as The Herders. They at first capture Wolf, but due to his committed cohorts, he quickly escapes from prison. Now it is up to The Guillotines, lead by Leng (Ethan Juan) and Haidu (Shawn Yue), to track him down and bring about justice. However, Leng and Haidu have their own problems. Leng, a Han-chinese born (like Wolf, and unlike the Manchurian government he is fighting for), has grew to consider The Guillotines as his only true family. Haidu, however, views the group as being expendable in order to protect the kingdom. As these two have their clashes, they will also find a very powerful and persuasive “villain” with Wolf.

The Review
The “flying guillotine” is a device that has been used numerous times within Hong Kong cinema. An ancient weapon that has a ton of mystique surrounding it, it doesn’t seem nearly as practical as a sword or bludgeoning weapon, but it definitely has the power to grab attention. The most well known film to feature this weapon would probably be Jimmy Wang Yu’s beloved Master of the Flying Guillotine, but there were certainly others that used this prop. The MythBusters television program even did a special covering this weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon that rivals the nunchaku in terms of cinematic “coolness.” In most depictions, it is that of a hat that sits on the end of a chain, and when it lands on a victim’s head – razors come out and it removes their head. Little more needs to be say, because there are few things potentially cooler than that when it comes to weaponry. The idea behind this weapon is relatively simple, and when used in cinema, we see characters who have mastered something. That immediately makes the character somewhat interested to the audience. In this case, such characters have mastered the game of “ring toss” to such a degree that they have defied all odds. We all know how difficult it is to throw a ring around a cylinder with precision, but when the end result is a decapitation? We immediately know that this character is a certified badass. This is where The Guillotines, and all movies centering on the flying guillotine, begins. Many audiences, regardless of the film, will give this movie a chance based solely on the gimmicky greatness of the flying guillotine, and I can’t say that I blame them. Unfortunately, many audiences can prepare to be crushed when they find out that this isn’t the “flying guillotine” that they know and love. Instead of a hat that contains razors, this version of the weapon looks more like a metallic version of the crescent basket used in the sport of Jai Alai, but instead of a ball being thrown from its edges, we have a razor-sharp ring that latches around the neck of its victim. Still pretty cool, but not as cool as the original. A statement that can be said about many aspects of The Guillotines.

If I’m going to say anything about the movie, it is that the action comes early & often and that is of a relatively high quality. It seems as if the first 15-20 minutes of the film is completely dominated by action sequences. Featuring the introduction of the Guillotines and The Herders, which is done via a awe-inspiring fight sequence that takes place surrounded by flames, the beginning of the movie easily grabs potential viewers. We follow that sequence up with Wolf’s escape from captivity, which is another great action scene, and the movie establishes itself with a very impressive start. Unfortunately, things slow down by a considerable margin. The action seems to dissipate, and instead we’re treated to a relatively meandering series of events where our characters try to track Wolf. While it might be interesting for some to delve into the wafer thin concepts dealing with friendship and loyalty, but very little of it is earnest or original. That doesn’t stop the film from becoming melodramatic about things though. The climax to the film tries to bring together both sides of the movie, the action spectacle of the beginning and the meandering character drama of the middle. It gives us some spectacular explosions, but it also goes over-the-top in its emotional theatrics. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t developed in a way that makes them stand out and they are hard to root for because of this. There is of course a late-blooming love story that develops during the third act, and it seems about as tacked on as one would expect. Very little of this ever feels organic, and that becomes the largest negative that the movie has going against it.

As can be expected in many of these contemporary Chinese epics, the movie features a fair amount of CGI. This is the thorn in the side of every Asian film fan, as most of these epics usually feature abysmal computer generated images and they tend to hamper the quality of the movies rather than adding to them. Yet, The Guillotines does actually feature some quality graphical work on occasion. Yet, as the movie goes along, the run of awesome special FX runs into the ground. The CGI becomes hit/miss as the movie chugs along. To go along with this very familiar tale of poor CGI, the movie also takes time to develop an underlining theme about developing a distrust of Western influences. To go along with this, there is some regularly scheduled Chinese patriotism on display, and it culminates with a speech that goes so far out of its way to endorse the communist party that it loses all pretense of actually telling a story.

Looking at all of the elements found with The Guillotines, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this looks like a slam dunk. On paper, The Guillotines has it all. The cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, the action sequences are kinetic, and there are occasionally some interesting and discernible characters found within the movie. Problems arise when the movie eventually starts to develop during the middle. When the awesome action of the first twenty minutes lets up, the movie finds itself in a peculiar spot. How does it try to grab the audience? Well, how about some espionage and subtext revolving around family and what it means to be part of a unit? This is of course nowhere near as exciting as the action or the intrigue that came before, and the added dose of thick melodrama does not help this one out. This sort of over-the-top drama is usually welcome whenever it is backed by innovation or intense action, but the middle section of The Guillotines does lack in this regard. What is left is a movie that has some of the formative elements that might make a great movie, but is unable to piece them together in a way that will grab the viewer.

The Conclusion
While not a terrible movie, The Guillotines falls short of hitting the mark. Those who are interested in the legacy of the flying guillotine may want to check out this very different interpretation, but action cinema fans are not obligated to search it out. The movie is an easy two out of five.