In the 15 or so years since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduced American multiplex audiences to the Chinese heroic epic genre wuxia, the style has gradually taken over the screen space that used to be dominated by Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal vehicles. The combination of realistic, lightning-fast hand-to-hand combat, modern crime movie plot dynamics, and quippy dialog that gradually made Chan a star and Seagal a self-parody was a reliable studio recipe for decades. Then, kinda abruptly, it wasn’t anymore. Crouching Tiger brought a renewed cinematic grandeur to shooting fight scenes through what some critics labeled “wire-fu,” but it also reset the stakes for a martial arts film by replacing guns with swords and modernity with nostalgia.
Everything that made Crouching Tiger new and exciting for Academy Awards voters was decades old for Chinese audiences. Wuxia pictures date back almost a century. The rules of the genre are as well-defined as any other, and as with any longstanding film tradition, that can produce an exhausting sense of predictability. Like the American western and its Italian cousins, wuxia movies tend to follow similar beats and play upon a shared visual style, seeking to distinguish themselves through technical brio and fight choreography. Most of the genre never makes it to U.S. screens, but when it does the quality can vary wildly. If it works, you get something like Hero, the 2004 Zhang Yimou epic that set Jet Li loose in a tightly scripted, elegantly photographed, often fluorescent war story. If it doesn’t, you get flashy cut-rate stuff like 14 Blades, a 2010 release which the Weinstein Company has just ported over from Shanghai to the States for a late-summer theatrical release.
The movie’s title comes from the Jin Yi Mei, an elite imperial guard in medieval China who are culled from the local orphanages through a Darwinian, Thunderdome-like selection process. Their leader Qinlong, played by Donnie Yen (Ip Man), is dispatched to stop a treasonous prince’s attempted coup. As leader of the Jin Yi Mei, he carries the titular 14 Blades — a Batman utility belt in the form of a rectangular box slung across his back that serves as a deus ex machina whenever he fights himself into trouble or is set upon by dozens of opponents at once. His mission goes awry, he meets a beguiling woman, he is torn between his duty to an empire that despises him and the appeal of the the one thing he’s not allowed to have: a peaceful retirement. Slap-bang action follows. There is talk of honor and brotherhood and betrayal. He comes to grips with an escalating series of opponents, killing most and converting some into comrades, until meeting his match in the form of the rebellious prince’s daughter. She fights with a whip and moves so quickly she can shed layers of clothing mid-fight to distract opponents, kill them, and cartwheel back into the garments before they hit the ground. She is the coolest thing about 14 Blades, and she’s not even that cool.
The problem with 14 Blades is that it attempts to be a genre collage, drawing in Westerns and gadget-driven hero movie ideas. The titular blade-box is the medieval Chinese equivalent of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, bailing Qinlong out of scrape after scrape. Writer-director Daniel Lee feels the need to show animated shots of the box’s internal gears and flywheels when Qinlong is employing it, even though this is the opposite of interesting visual style in 2014 (or even 2010). Our hero falls back on the support of a rag-tag band of aging, under-qualified security escorts to defeat what is supposedly the greatest fighting force known to the planet at the time using canyons and boulders. An unlikely ally rides to his love interest’s rescue at a key moment. Horseback shootouts with crossbows recall the cavalry flicks that delighted American cinema-goers 60 years ago.
The end result is something like a bad smoothie: you know it has a bunch of tasty ingredients in there somewhere, but they’ve blended into a bland, directionless nothing. There’s no zip, nothing to delight the palate. The movie’s action sequences are brief and stylized to within an inch of their life, but in a bad way. Crouching Tiger’s bamboo forest and rooftop fights, and similarly constructed sequences in Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and other successful wuxia use scenery and choreography in harmonious and visually thrilling ways, and their slow-motion sequences and unbelievable physics become part of the fun rather than a distraction. There’s no reason that this same recipe can’t work with desert scenery and Western flavor, as Lee’s movie attempts, but 14 Blades feels like a bad video game. Or worse, like an untrained kid playing with the wuxia tools his uncle keeps in the basement, waving them around haphazardly to amuse himself without any understanding of how to use them properly. If this is the best wuxia that studios can show to America these days, it won’t be long before movies like The Raid and The Raid 2 fully reclaim the sector of the film economy earmarked for Asian action imports.