Whether he’s beating up bad guys with his fists, beating up bad guys with his feet, or beating up bad guys with an umbrella, Donnie Yen is one of the most endlessly watchable martial arts performers of his time. Throw him in any era and he fits right in; put a weapon in his hand and he delivers a physical performance that verges on balletic. He even makes a compelling villain, but his greatest hits tend to place him as the hero. Yen’s just that kind of guy, a whirling charismatic dynamo of brutal wushu skull crushing.
Which all serves to make 14 Blades kind of a king bummer, because it so rarely lets Yen off the hook to do his thing. Casting Donnie Yen in a martial arts film and burying him in CGI is akin to casting Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action film and arming him with a Nerf gun. With just one creative decision, all of the “stuff” that makes Yen so great gets sucked right out of the room in favor of phony-baloney computer bull puckey. There is nothing interesting about watching a guy with Yen’s stratospheric level of talent get saddled down by FX work that drowns out his physical gifts.
The film settles on the late Ming Dynasty for its backdrop, and establishes an ineffectual emperor as its figurehead before piecing together a conspiracy against the throne as clumsily as possible. Seriously, 14 Blades is convoluted. (It doesn’t help that whoever handled subtitling duties for The Weinstein Company turned out an inadequate translation; one need not speak Mandarin to pick up on the lingual whiffs here.) But if the particulars are mangled through text, the basics convey themselves enough to draw necessary moral lines. Double amputee and career traitor Prince Qing (the legendary Sammo Hung, criminally misused) is bad! His adopted daughter, the cunning and slippery Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), is bad!
And Qinglong (Yen) is the equalizing force out to foil their plotting. He’s actually a member of the emperor’s secret police, the Jinyiwei, an organization built out of orphans trained to kill without question from youth; the dozen and change sharp objects of the title belong to him, housed in a veritable death box that falls somewhere between the guitar cases of El Mariachi and Desperado and the baby cart of Lone Wolf and Cub. In grand genre tradition, Qinglong, ever the loyal servant, winds up caught betwixt betrayals and forced to fend off adversaries from all sides in an escalating series of fast paced face offs.
The film’s prospects seem initially high simply due to Yen’s presence. But there are bigger problems at play here, chief among them an inexplicable reliance on outrageously overproduced effects. Not only do they mask the efforts of Yen and his fellow martial artists, they stir up a visual cacophony so anything we can see looks indistinct. It’s worth noting that most of the film’s primary combatants categorically lack his background; they’re Mandopop icons and erstwhile Miss Hong Kongs, and they ostensibly need technology to bridge the lacuna between their inexperience and Yen’s proficiency. But that doesn’t make 14 Blades‘ incoherence okay.
There is a moment in which the film flirts with the idea of letting Yen be Yen, where the star casually dismantles a dozen bandits armed with naught but a chicken wing and his pimp hand. The scene underscores Yen’s appeal; even when he’s slapping around a bunch of outmatched miscreants, he’s magnetic. If only 14 Blades allowed each subsequent fight sequence the same clarity of tone (not to mention spatial geography). Such as it is, the movie breezes by, but it’s a poor showcase for Yen’s virtuosity. Qinglong barely feels like the legend he’s trumped as, and he feels even less like a fully fledged character. You’ll find worse entries in the wuxia genre, but perhaps none quite so wasteful as this.