Despite the multitude of cinematic tricks the prolific Andrew Lau has up his sleeve, The Guillotines is a disappointingly rote entry in the wuxia pantheon. For all of its attempts at dramatic uplift and visceral awe, the would-be historical saga, set during China’s Qing Dynasty, amounts to little more than a strained collection of ideas and moments from other films, paying only lip service to notions of brotherhood and the clashing values of traditionalism and modernity.
A secret government assassination squad used to quash rebellions, the Guillotines, led by master fighter Leng (Ethan Juan), are themselves forbidden to learn how to read or write, their blind allegiance all the better used as a blunt political weapon. The new Qianlong Emperor (Zhang Wen), however, embraces Western technology and betrays the warriors in hopes of erasing this “stain” from the history books. The film’s drawn-out narrative certainly doesn’t lack for potentially awesome spectacle, but Lau’s frequently restless crane shots mostly backfire, killing any sense of pacing through their imbued impatience, while the many battle sequences want not only for more expansive coverage, but an editing scheme that suggests characters actually occupying the same physical space.
Lau’s recent Legend of the Fist was no triumph, but its action set pieces carried an infectious energy even during the comparatively rote stretches of exposition; The Guillotines almost inversely suggests a slowly deflating balloon, starting off with a bang, and often deliberately evoking the metallic clanging of a Transformers film, before rapidly succumbing to shallow histrionics and stale artifice. From the distractingly sloppy CGI-aided bloodshed to the habitually premature fade-outs, which suggest compensative efforts made in the editing room, the slight promise of genre pleasures is lost to too many fundamental dramatic and technical concessions.