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It is the deadliest weapon made by man. The mere mention of its name fills hearts with terror. Long shrouded in mystery, it launches from a distance and locks onto the target’s head, the internal blades decapitating the victim with the yank of a chain. A weapon of choice for elite fighters, the flying guillotine leaves victims begging for mercy. A secret brotherhood of assassins – known only as The Guillotines – were once favored by the Emperor, but are now a force of terror and oppression under a new regime.  Exiled to a remote village and hunted by a squad of fighters with firearms that challenge their cold steel, The Guillotines must now outwit and outfight enemies from both sides. (From Well Go USA’s official synopsis)

Guillotines, the
The flying guillotine is, quite possibly, the single coolest weapon anyone ever dreamed up. Conceptually, it’s basically a basket with retractable blades along the rim that can be tossed over a victim’s head. Then, with a simple pull of a rope/chain, the blades can slice into the victim’s neck, chopping off the cranium and conveniently capturing it in the basket for easy collection. It’s doubtful one was ever officially used in combat (the Mythbusters decided it was a ‘plausible’ weapon, but probably couldn’t fully decapitate anyone), but it has been treated very well on film, specifically a series of loosely-related Shaw Brothers flicks – Flying Guillotine, Master of the Flying Guillotine (easily the best and also a sequel to The One-Armed Boxer), The Flying Guillotine 2, and Vengeful Beauty. Other films have featured the device ( Heroic Trio, for example), but few have been based specifically around it.

This latest movie to feature the weapon has very little in common with either of the original flying guillotine movies, but is largely interchangeable with a great many martial arts pictures on a plot level (Yuen Woo-Ping’s Tai Chi Master, for one) – based on what little plot I was able to discern from this mass of narrative knots. The confusing story is indicative of modern effects-heavy Chinese action cinema. I feel like a xenophobic old man every time I complain about this, but I swear kung fu period pieces used to make sense. It might be my problem, not Chinese cinema’s, but I’m guessing that there being six people credited as writing this film may have amplified the problem. That’s a lot of hands in the kitchen. The film opens with a title-crawl/narrative introduction that leads into a fight that establishes the weaponry and skills of The Guillotines and introduces them each by character name. Then, as the films credits begin to roll, further narration and text-heavy animation reveals even more back-story – back-story that includes ‘they say this, but they mean this’ type of contradiction, so the narration is also meant to act as character building. All of this information is crammed into about six and a half minutes. The flashbacks and character introductions keep coming, cramming historical context and complexity into an already convoluted story that sometimes feels like a sequel to a nonexistent movie. The Guillotines is also almost relentlessly bleak. The story is somewhat unique in that its protagonists begin the film as villains, or at least on the wrong side of justice, and this, along with that historical context, certainly justifies a heavy dose of grimness. The problem is that the cruelty and mawkishness is exhausting. By the time the villain has order the execution of the 700th innocent villager things take a turn into inadvertent satire.

Guillotines, the
The Guillotines is directed by Andrew Lau (Wai-Keung, not Tak-wah), who is still best known in America for co-directing the Infernal Affairs films with Alan Mak. I’ve never been particularly enamored with any of Lau’s output, but have to admit that films like The Storm Riders, The Duel, and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen are well-put-together on a physical and visual level (Lau also acted as cinematographer on some of Won Kar-Wai, Ringo Lam and Sammo Hung’s better films). Lau is certainly guilty of making some bad tonal choices, but he squeezes a whole lot of style from the concept – fitting it somewhere between a traditional period piece and a comic book movie. The supernatural weaponry gives Lau a chance to pull off some Sam Raimi-esque weapon-point-of-view images and some swirling virtual camera shots of the ridiculously intricate machinery that makes up the flying guillotines. Lau also manages to make speed-ramping and super slo-mo look pretty cool, which is no small feat in this post- Matrix world. The digital effects that permeate from every corner of the film aren’t particularly convincing, but the unnatural visual tone is cartoonish enough to properly contextualize the less-than-photorealistic CG. His enthusiasm for the effects is kind of infectious, too, at least during the sadly all-too-uncommon martial arts battle sequences. The gory brutality that turns the film’s more dramatic sequences into accidental comedy works beautifully when applied to the over-the-top battles, complete with splattering blood and gurgling sounds. It’s really too bad that so little of the film actually revolves around martial arts, because Lau has a major talent for this type of thing.

Guillotines, the

Video


The Guillotines was shot in 3D using both Red Epic and Arri Alexa digital HD cameras. Well Go USA’s 2.40:1, 1080p transfer makes great use of the hi-res formats’ super-sharp detail capabilities. Every frame is brimming with fine texture and complex patterns, from the sweeping, wide-angle shots of majestic environments to the extreme close-ups that explore the intricacies of the head-severing weapons. The palette is very lively and is divided between locations and sequence types. Some battles are dark and cool with dusty warm highlights and skin tones. These scenes tent to be a lot grainier, almost like 35mm film, and more washed out in terms of detail. These are the most problematic scenes for the transfer as a whole, including some bleeding colours and weak black levels (though a lot of the black issues seem to be a stylistic choice), but they also feature the most impressive dynamic ranges. Sequences set in the countryside locations are generally a lot warmer, brighter, and closer to realistically-tinted, though, even here, the weird Red Epic hue blends still mark these scenes as pretty heavily stylized. The golden tint here allows the homogenous red hues to pop very vividly. Flashbacks are, fortunately, discernable from the present-tense sequences, thanks to a desaturated, high contrast look that presses cleaner white and black levels. Outside of the aforementioned uptakes in digital noise compression effects are a non-issue.

Guillotines, the

Audio


Well Go has provided a choice between the original Mandarin or an English dub track, both available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. This review pertains to the Mandarin 5.1 track, which is really, really, really aggressive. Every motion is over-accentuated to the point of accidental comedy, but where the film lacks subtly, it often makes up for in lively sound design, at least where this lossless soundtrack is concerned. The opening sequence alone, where the flying guillotines are established, is enough of a massive, multi-channel workout to qualify the disc as demo material. Future battles appear to be so powerful that they bring about environmental changes, which is represented in abstract swirling noises and vibrating bass influences, and the climax features a volley of cannon fire that punches up the LFE influence. Once again, however, the dialogue tracks sound unnaturally loud and crisp in the way only studio-recorded speech can sound. I’m starting to think that Chinese action films have taken to shooting without sound again. Despite the uncanny noise qualities, the dialogue is impressive in terms of natural placement throughout the channels. Incidental music, like the stuff that plays during a puppet show, is also given a wide range of directional movement, while Chan Kwong-wing’s score either settles warmly beneath the action or emphasizes it with impact-heavy drum tracks.

Extras


The extras begin with cast and crew interviews (37:40, HD). These include Lau, who gives the most substantial production back-story, costume designer Dora Ng, and actors Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Juan, Shawn Yue, Boran Jing, and Li Yuchun. Up next is a behind-the-scenes featurette (17:20, HD) that acts as an EPK, an introduction to the cast, a primer on the effects and fights, and a tour of the locations. Things are wrapped-up with a trailer and trailers for other Well Go USA releases.

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Overall


The Guillotines has some really great moments, but its tonal choices are exhausting and its plot is never cohesive, leading to some long stretches of pretty-but-dull stuff between those great moments. It’s not a bad movie – it’s a messy one. Well Go’s Blu-ray looks very good and is limited only by the noisiness of some of the darker sequences, which I’m assuming is part of the source material. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack has some funny vocal effects, but is otherwise a demo-worthy, hyper-aggressive track. The extras are decent, but feel more like EPK material than anything else.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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