I hadn't come across the work of Daniel Lee before and my exposure to Chinese historical epics has largely been limited to Zhang Yimou's output, with the brilliant Hero, Raise the Red Lantern, and The House of Flying Daggers. There is also Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so any historical epic from China has some fairly lofty films which it will be compared against.
14 Blades hasn't really had much exposure in the West, with its only awards coming from the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Shanghai film critics who respectively awarded it Best Action Choreography and Best Actress although it has also won the Best Fight Scene award at the inaugural Action Fest. Furthermore, it did extremely well at the box office and has so far raked in the equivalent of US$21 million in China alone.
The film follows Qinglong, a man loyal to the Emperor and who has been trained to kill since he was an eight-year-old orphan as part of the deadly Jinyiwei, the brocade guards who are a private army and a law unto themselves but fiercely loyal to the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. However, when the Imperial Court is usurped by Jia, Qinglong is asked to find a list which contains the names of everyone still loyal to the Emperor. Unbeknownst to him, the Jinyiwei are also under Jia's command and will do all they possibly can to stop Qinglong fulfilling his mission.
As he has been branded a traitor and is one of the most wanted men in the kingdom, Qinglong needs safe passage and enlists the help of an old man, Jiao Zhong, and his beautiful daughter Qiao Hua. Predictably enough, Qinglong and Qiao Hua end up alone together and reliant upon each other to stay alive. As the treacherous Prince Qing has dispatched his daughter, Tuo Tuo, to hunt down and kill Qinglong, he not only has to worry about the deadly Jinyiwei, but a woman with the seeming ability to be several places at once by shedding layers of clothing which hover in mid air and her razor tipped chain.
Apart from the gold seal that Qinglong always carries with him, a small wooden box is never far from his side containing the titular assortment of weapons. Eight of these have been specifically designed for interrogation with the other six for execution and he knows that, should he fail in his duty, the final weapon should be used on him.
I've only seen a couple of Donnie Yen films before and he really struck me as a martial artist rather than actor -- this is no bad thing as the same thing can be said about Bruce Lee and he made some incredible movies. The problem I had with 14 Blades is that it felt as if it at all been done before, and been done better, by Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, with the result that this felt a little like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-lite, without the sense of grandeur and epic scale that Lee brought to proceedings. Even the deadly female assassin, Tuo Tuo, seemed to be in a similar role to Jade Fox as the arch nemesis of our hero.
That said, this is a very well put together martial arts film with some stunning fight scenes and terrific aerial shots making full use of every resource available to Daniel Lee. When you have a cast that includes Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, you're virtually guaranteed some masterful martial arts but Sammo Hung is really in a supporting role so it is up to Donnie Yen to carry the piece.
Although 14 Blades isn't the most original or accomplished martial arts historical epic that you will ever see, it is so well worth a watch if only for the incredible action set pieces. In the final battle the mysterious group of renegade soldiers, the Sky Eagles Clan, let off the equivalent of RPGs in order to break down defences!
The 20 minute making of doesn't go into too much detail about locations, costumes, casting and other elements of the filmmaking process, instead you have the writer/director talking about the real historical background to the characters and events and the actors talking about their characters.
There is also a trailer.
The one thing that China offers filmmakers is a vast array of different geographical features and sheer scale so they can shoot in desert locations, mountainous regions or, with a multitude of cheap extras, construct a town teeming with life. It is clearly no problem to construct a massive set, building a town in the middle of nowhere so you can have an aerial shot of a carriage racing away from the town into the desert which will cost you have very little money.
This makes it all the more strange that Daniel Lee chose to employ so much CGI, some of which is far from impressive and almost looks like a cut scene from the videogame Assassin's Creed as he gives you a sweeping overview of one of the locations.
When it comes to the combat scenes, these are extremely well choreographed and executed, with remarkable work by Ku Huen Chiu who was in charge of all of the fight choreography and action sequences.
The menu gives you a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or DTS 5.1 and, if a film like this, it is a bit of a no-brainer. Although the sound design isn't the finest ever heard, it is a very good soundtrack with a fine score, very good Foley work and excellent sound effects to complement the fight sequences.
When it comes to the more bombastic elements, especially the final sequence when there are bombs going off, the 5.1 track really comes into its own with plenty of LFEs and sounds coming from all around the room, completely immersing you in the action.
The burnt in English subtitles are pretty good but occasionally disappear before you have finished reading the line and can get a little 'lost' against a light background but, otherwise errors are minimal and they are good enough to let you follow the story.
There is a lot to like about 14 Blades which works quite well as a historical epic with a great deal of martial arts sequences thrown in. It does, however, tread in exactly the same footsteps as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and suffers by comparison as, as fine a martial arts practitioner as Donnie Yen is, he is no Chow Yun Fat and, as his romantic interest, Wei Zhao (sometimes known as Vicki Zhao) is no Zhi Zhang.
This is perfectly passable entertainment, but nothing more and I don't think it will be considered a classic in years to come like Crouching Tiger or the best of Zhang Yimou's work.