THE GUILLOTINES isn’t a remake of MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, but it uses the same concept of the Emperor having an elite squad of ruthless executioners who use the flying guillotine to do his bidding/beheading. If you thought this was a far-fetched weapon when it was a ring of blades that popped out of a collapsible basket on the end of a chain, wait until you see the post-steampunk version.
In the opening we see the Guillotines (or really the team of digital FX artists) demonstrate their skills in Zack Snyderian slo-mo detail. They have ornate metal rings (like that thing Xena threw) that spin on the end of a curved sword that they hold like a jai alai basket. They pose and let it menacingly chunk chunk chunk until they toss it. It can curve around, ricochet and ring around some motherfucker’s collar and then the machinery dramatically clicks and chings for a while before the blades fold and pop out and cut off the head.
Of course the camera whooshes inside and through the mechanisms. There’s so much fetishism for the sounds and workings of this impossible weapon that it’s like the original flying guillotine had a baby with a teaser trailer for a Michael Bay TRANSFORMERS sequel. But in a good way though.
The Guillotines are a tight-knit group, they consider themselves brothers because they’ve all gone through the same thing, chosen as children to train and live deprived lives, forbidden to know how to read or write, which is supposed to assure their loyalty. Their leader is Musen (Yuchun Li, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE), the Emperor’s daughter. He regrets not having a male heir, but she’s a badass and the others accept and respect her as a brother. So it’s a conflict for them when she’s taken hostage and he announces that she is dead to him and they are to go collect her body if possible. A cold-blooded way to make a hostage situation easier to deal with.
The abductors are a rebel group called The Herders, led by Wolf (Xiaoming Huang). This guy is suspiciously Jesus-like: peaceful, long hair, beard, robe, many followers, heals the sick (with medicine and sweet potatoes), even (SPOILER) sacrifices himself for the people, but using the execution methods you would expect in this movie.
Holy shit, you know what this is? This is a gritty reboot of the New Testament! They moved the location around and fudged the dates and stuff but this is true to the original character. A good way to introduce Him to younger audiences. I was worried they were gonna make Him a Jesus who kicks the other cheek instead of turning it, but the worst he does is get a crowd riled up in a Morpheus-style cave speech.
I like the way the names of the two groups lay out the conflict here. A guillotine is a way for a rich and vicious regime to execute their enemies. These guys are human weapons. And their enemies are herders – peasants, people who work for a living, get dirty, get paid little. But also the herding could represent the people moving in concert, working together. We find that Wolf runs a commune, an isolated farm community run by the refugees. They work, the children play, they all smile and say hello. This might be communist propaganda come to think of it but hey, seems like a nice place to live.
This is directed by Andrew Lau of INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy fame, so there is a mole, and everybody feels horribly betrayed, because they’re brothers, etc. Unfortunately for me it also means that it’s one of these martial arts period fantasies that’s more about feeling heavy and serious than delivering the goods. The battles are fine, but they abandon the over-the-top weaponry after the opening, there is no memorable choreography and slo-mo is more often used for Exotic Wailing Sound melodrama than for emphasis of movement or impact.
The biggest sin in my book is that the climactic battle leaves one Guillotine to protect the village with the one remaining guillotine, and then (BIG SPOILER) she gets shot before she even draws the thing. Yeah, cool point bro, but I’m the kind of viewer that would rather see a fun movie about the use of these fanciful weapons you made up instead of a lecture about how they’d be useless against guns. But I mean thanks for the information, I will remember it if I ever am in an alternate past where those weapons exist and then I am gonna try to use them when the enemy has guns.
At least it should be a more literal illustration of the concept that the guillotine’s range is only 10 paces. Put the bad guy at 11 paces.
Admittedly the guillotine is used for an effective (off-screen) dramatic climax, and hats off for the (SPOILER) satisfied smile on Wolf’s severed head as it’s held up to end the conflict between the Han Chinese and the Manchurians. This is a pretty good movie, but you should know what you’re getting into in case you’re like me and would prefer the type of movie where the Guillotines are left alive as a Qing dynasty A-Team, masterless nomadic badasses, exotically armed spaghetti western anti-heroes. Instead it’s the type of movie where they all die tragically and then some heavy text pretends to tell you the important effect these people who clearly did not exist had on history.
I guess the One-Armed Boxer himself, Jimmy Wang Yu, appears in it, but I didn’t realize it was him.
Anyway, I look forward to the Scorsese version.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.