As The Guillotines opens, the titular assassins—an elite 18th-century hit squad—are closing in on messianic bandit Huang Xiaoming and his white-robed followers. Their showdown makes for a rollicking prologue, a whir of blades, flames, and proto-steampunk gadgetry that plays like a cross between a Tsui Hark movie and Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers. However, it’s also misleading; like Andrew Lau’s Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen, The Guillotines expends most of its energy in its first 30 minutes, leaving the audience with roughly 90 minutes of soapy Qing Dynasty fan fiction.
After Huang escapes with the daughter of the head Guillotine (no pun intended) as his hostage, the Emperor dispatches Ethan Juan (Monga) to track them down. Juan is joined by a half-dozen of his Guillotine brothers, as well as Imperial guard Shawn Yue, a childhood friend turned rival. Yue’s presence is viewed with suspicion; the Imperial army is investing heavily in gunpowder, and rumors are circulating that the Guillotines’ brand of elaborate gadget-based combat will soon become obsolete. Adding to the tension is the fact that Huang has hidden out in an ethnically Han region where the Manchu Guillotines are unwelcome.
Half historical fantasy, half macho weepie, The Guillotines alternates revisionist, self-contradictory political rhetoric with long scenes of warriors pointing swords at each other and yelling, “How could it come to this? We are brothers!” while holding back tears. Slow motion and melancholy strings emphasize the sadness of the characters without ever making it palpable, and as a result, the film feels perversely bloodless and drained of emotion—a melodrama without any drama.
Rapid modernization, attempts to erase history, and inter-ethnic conflict are all major subjects for a Chinese film. As if to underscore the fact that he is working in the realm of national myth, Lau fills the movie with spectacular landscape shots. If only his accomplishments were half as big as his ambitions.