A troubled Hong Kong action film that almost didn’t happen, you might wish it hadn’t…
A Hong Kong action film long in the making; The Guillotines is based around a group of silent assassins, armed with the titular weapons, who are tasked to kill anyone who defies the Chinese Emperor and threatens his rule.
The path to the screen wasn’t easy for this film, originally announced in 2009 and taken upon by Dante Lam (Beast Cops, Beast Stalker, Sniper, The Twins Effect) however this was cut short as The Viral Factor quickly became a forerunner, cutting production of the film until Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs trilogy, Initial D: Driftracer, The Storm Riders) came on the scene to assist Peter Chan and take the reigns, bringing The Guillotines to a big screen release.
The opening sequence is incredibly stylish, demonstrating the wrath and power of the weapons used by the Qing Dynasty assassin squad, flying through the air and brutally slicing up anything that comes into contact. Their usefulness and longevity is cut short however when Emperor Qian Long ascends to the throne, bringing with him an idealism of Western culture and influence, allowing that to seep into his rule and bringing about a swift adoptive change from handheld weapons to guns and cannons.
The guillotine squad set out on a quest during their final days in pursuit of a threatening rebel (Huang Xiaoming) who has kidnapped one of their own. The guillotines track him to a distant city where the rebel is rousing the local populace into rebelling against the Qian rulers and potentially provoke conflict.
Despite having the assumption of a Wuxia film and the film title conveying the eponymous assassin squad and their weapons of choice, neither seem particularly well represented in the film. The flying CGI weapons of death are rarely seen and under utilized, appearing in the first and last acts with little showcase in-between. The squad themselves suffered from a hilarious build-up of history and presence in the plot, indicating they are undefeated in masses of battles and the most elite of soldiers, yet the way they are handled through the narrative of the film is laughable, quickly destroying any credulity the characters developed with the audience in the first act.
The 3D is overused in places and causes easy distortion and wariness of the situation, confusing the viewer whilst instead trying to persuade them they are flying through the spinning mechanism of the titular weapons, when they are briefly used. For a group of stealth killer assassins, they don’t remember often to convey those stealth elements, and indeed forget momentarily that they are supposed to be assassins. Aside from a bloody and vicious opening sequence and an equally deadly ending finale, action in the film is few and far between, instead focusing more upon character development and emotional exploration.
I feel The Guillotines is a film that suffers from an identity crisis, increasingly questioning the genre it is supposed to be as the narrative progresses and flitting frequently from one film style to another. The soundtrack works incredibly well and the stunning scenery and camera work are easily redeemable of the sufferable plot, which isn’t that hard to swallow once you relax and accept the film for what it is, instead of expecting a lot more from what it isn’t and what it should have been, halts in production and rumored script problems with the producer have only contributed to the dip in quality that diverted from the original promised product. As indeed that is the finishing note from The Guillotines; an overall decent quality film but let down by the narrative, which should have stuck with the action of the opening and continued down that bloody, violent path for another hour and half.