In the long established tradition of wuxia – Chinese tales of chivalrous swordsmen – this action adventure film has everything you’d expect from a genre that thrives on excess – a simple narrative with epic pretentions, exotic landscapes and richly-designed sets enhanced with wildly over-saturated colours, dramatically stilted performances and melodramatic lines, and of course the wire-assisted martial arts sequences where assassins and heroes battle it out with the ever present “ching” of blade sound-effects ringing out in stereo. Over the top? Of course – sometimes to the point of silliness – but this is almost certainly one for the fans – of martial arts movies or the followers of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen.
Yen plays lone swordsman Qinglong, a member of the Jinyiwei – the secret police for Ming Dynasty emperors – who is betrayed and on the run after being caught up on the wrong side of Imperial politics. He falls in with a band of professional bodyguards only to take off with the leader’s daughter Qiao Hua (Vicki Zhao), fights and befriends a bandit leader named Judge (Wu Chan), and then faces off against female warrior Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui) who has the ability to shape-shift by taking off her clothes. If that’s not enough, he has to rescue the Imperial seal, put down a rebellion, get the gold, save the poor suffering people of the Empire and – most importantly – restore his dignity. No wonder he needs the 14 blades.
Yen and co-star Zhao are uninspiring as central characters – he permanently wooden and she frequently dewy-eyed, and the plot is unnecessarily hard to follow. The dark and mysterious first thirty minutes of the film are the most interesting – full of the murderous politics of the ancient court – but when the action switches to the barren plains of the desert, Director Daniel Lee lets the film takes on a distinctly Western feel, with horses, outlaws and small town showdowns added to the eclectic mix of storytelling. Most disappointing – especially for wire-fu fans – are the poorly staged and edited fight sequences, many of which rely on unimpressive CGI for their impact. Ironically, the worst staging and special effects surround the ever-present and mysterious box that contains the totally implausible 14 blades.