Remember the HK martial arts films from the early 90s? Well, they're back. The first time I picked up some really obvious signs was when watching Tracing Shadows, but with 14 Blades I think the verdict is definitive. The year 1993 is here again and has returned with a vengeance.
For me personally, '93 is the glory year of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Titles as Iron Monkey, Green Snake, Fong Sai-Yuk and Tai-Chi Master all belong to my absolute favorites in the genre. 14 Blades revives plenty of that former glory, mixing it with more recent period piece styling. Watching 14 Blades, it's easy to recognize influences from Lee's previous film Three Kingdoms just as much as from the classics.
14 Blades also reinforces (once again) the comeback of Donnie Yen. It's funny how he slipped from the scene just when it started to collapse down on itself, only to return when the HK industry was starting to pick up its pieces. This last year has been a blast for Yen, with major roles in Ip Man, Bodyguards and Assassins and now 14 Blades, each film displaying another aspect of his action hero talents.
The story behind 14 Blades is a pretty simple one. Yen is the leader of an elite group of government agents. He is framed during one of his missions and barely manages to escape. He sets out again to finish his mission and to uncover the conspiracy against him. Most of the storytelling is done during the first half of the film, after that there is little time for such silly stories, as the action and acrobatics take center stage.
Visually 14 Blades is a true marvel. Using modern camera techniques and smart yet modest use of computer power, Lee recreates the appeal of the 90s HK movies. This means lots of monochrome shots, agile and creative camera work during the actions scenes and a good dose of smoke to make it all the more mysterious. Classic settings like desert towns, inns and forests all pass the screen, making fans feel right at home.
The soundtrack is pretty unremarkable though. Usually not a big asset in these type of films anyway, so it's not really a big issue. It doesn't irritate, which is just about all I expect from it. Sound effects on the other hand feel stronger and carry a lot of punch, making the fights that more powerful. Acting is pretty solid too, with Yen as an impressive stoic force and Zhao being her typical self.
The second part of the film is mostly spent on action scenes and some quick plot progression. Which is a good thing really, as the main story leaves little room for much elaboration and the action choreography was just too good to let it go to waste. The build-up towards the final fight is pretty much perfect, with some solid and quick matches between several side characters and the main villain, a snake-like woman displaying incredible fighting powers. The finale doesn't disappoint either, delivering a truly epic battle which is already a classic if you ask me.
It's good to see this kind of fast-paced martial arts cinema being revived. I didn't mind the more gracious kind of the past 10 years either, but it did lack some of the more macho elements of fighting action. Yen is perfect in his role, the choreography is splendid and creative. Add some neat visuals and the results is a perfect update of the martial arts genre, making me look forward to the next film of this caliber.